CIS football has willing financial backer for national interlocking schedule

The Vanier Cup in Montreal on Nov. 29 drew a larger crowd than nearly all Montreal Alouettes home games this season (The Canadian Press)
The Vanier Cup in Montreal on Nov. 29 drew a larger crowd than nearly all Montreal Alouettes home games this season (The Canadian Press)

University of Saskatchewan booster David Dube is willing to make the supposedly biggest barrier to Canadian university football game on English-language TV every week go away.

The university game is very good, but is caught in a vicious cycle with a lack of national coverage and exposure. Broadcasters imply it isn't "a good product to start with" in order to justify the refusal to invest in production. There is no way to builld a TV property while showing only three games (the national semifinals and Vanier Cup). So what one sees is what one gets, even though the McMaster-Montreal Vanier Cup nailbiter on Nov. 29 drew far more eyeballs on Sportsnet, SN360 and Radio-Canada than any NCAA game in its timeslot.

While this latest pitch is less Christmas miracle and more about the art of the possible — i.e., convincing the director of athletics at an Ontario University Athletics school why it's worth it to have her/his football team travel to Calgary or Saskatoon instead of making a short trip down Highway 401 — there's some teeth and some cash behind it. As Le Journal de Quebec's Richard Boutin reported on the weekend before Christmas and as the Saskatoon StarPhoenix's Kevin Mitchell reported on Boxing Day, Dube is willing to foot all broadcast production costs for a weekly interlocking series. All four conferences have at least discussed interlocking play during the regular season. Coaches from across Canada who met recently with Dube and his representative, Vancouver broadcaster Jim Mullin (Shaw Cable's play-by-play man on its Canada West telecasts), believe there are some viable options for interlock scheduling.

Here's Mitchell (@kmitchsp):

Mullin said the key to making it succeed is high-quality games played by the top teams in the country. The meeting with coaches netted three proposals, with anywhere from eight to 12 teams nationwide participating either once or twice a season.

The next steps include trying to sell university administrators on the idea, and enticing a network — whether it be CBC, TSN or Sportsnet — to pick up the package, knowing their production costs are covered by Dube. The timeline, Mullin acknowledges, is short.

"David's a guy of action.

I've never met a guy so passionate about CIS football in all my life," Mullin says of Dube, who sponsors his Krown Countdown U football show while underwriting its costs, as well as serving as the title sponsor of Shaw's Canada West football broadcasts.

"(We want) a system where the best teams are playing on a national stage for a weekly television game. It's not creating a tier, or a new conference that sits above the other conferences. This is something that's clearly aspirational. If you play well enough, you can play up into it and get on TV. That's what's driving this thing. We need to have a game of the week, once a week, on national TV. And it's our feeling that the only way to get this done is to make sure we're not showing regional games, but we're showing games that have a national impact." (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Dec. 26)

The pitch has an appealing succinctness to it: invest in your program and win games and you will be in potential recruits' living rooms. In order for a sport to grow, it has to be delivered effectively to an audience. Media exposure is also an essential part of growing the game. This is analogous, albeit on a smaller scale, to the transformation of U.S. college football since the NCAA's monopoly where it was allowed to portion out TV broadcasts ended in the mid-1980s. Suddenly everyone was on TV every week and, before too long, there were big-time teams in seemingly out-of-the-way cities such as Boise, Idaho.

And, generally, that's what has happened to curling as a media property. It has gone from being an amateur sport where the world's best played only within their home province to one where the big names, be they from Manitoba, Alberta or Ontario, where going shot-for-shot every week.

Changing the regular-season schedule doesn't have to be signed off on by CIS. Each regional association is free to make its own choice. This will be a hard sell, but it's a way to create more meaningful competition and media interest in the sport from August through October. Fewer blowouts between 'have' 'happy to be here' teams such as Waterloo is also a nice off-shoot.  

No one is talking about the Vanier Cup doing world junior championship TV numbers. Realistically, though, in an apples-to-apples comparison between a compelling CIS regular-season matchup involving two regions of the country and say, Sportsnet's Canadian Hockey League regular-season package, the former would win every time. And that audience would still be engaged by the last two weeks of November.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.