NCAA football is kicking off this weekend with massive fanfare, but college football north of the border also starts on a national scale this weekend, and one CIS show is taking a trick out of the NCAA playbook to try and draw a bigger audience to the Canadian university game. South of the 49th parallel, ESPN's renowned College GameDay preview show has been described as "one of the best studio shows ever created." A big part of its success has come from broadcasting live from different schools each Saturday, using the atmosphere created by different fans to add a new dimension to a standard preview show. That's not cheap to do, though, so it hasn't often been imitated, especially north of the border. This season, though, Krown Countdown U (formerly Krown Canadian University Countdown) is trying to bring a College GameDay-style experience to CIS football.
For the first time in the show's three-year history (disclosure: I've appeared on it as a panelist in the past), they'll be doing a national CIS preview show live on-location for at least kickoff night. They'll be broadcasting live from the University of Saskatchewan's Griffiths Stadium Friday night in advance of the Huskies' highly-anticipated season-opener against the Regina Rams. The show will air on Shaw in Western Canada (in standard definition on the local community channels, on high definition on Shaw 303, on Shaw 299 on Dish), on Eastlink in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, on Cogeco in Kingston, Ontario and on the web at CanadaWest.tv starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, with the game to follow on Shaw. Producer Jim Mullin, who's entering his third year running the show (and also is the play-by-play man for Shaw's CIS game of the week), spoke with 55-Yard Line this week, and he said College GameDay provided a good part of the inspiration for why they're going on the road.
"It kind of is a slow build towards what College GameDay does with ESPN," Mullin said. "It is the GameDay direction we're trying to head."
Mullin said a big part of what he loves about GameDay is how its focus is on college football in its own right, not merely as a path to the pros. He thinks CIS coverage should follow suit on that front.
"GameDay works so well because it enables college football to tell its own story with its own energy," Mullin said. "The important thing for CIS to get to the next level is being able to tell their own stories, identifying what they are and what they're trying to promote."
There's a great story to tell Friday night in Saskatoon, as the Huskies have one of the best fanbases in CIS football. Mullin said that's evident from the ratings Shaw gets for its Game of the Week broadcasts: despite only metering the metro markets in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, games involving the Huskies have tended to outdraw anything else by a huge amount.
"We're not even getting ratings from Saskatchewan, and they're still getting seven times the ratings," Mullin said. "Our best ratings come when Saskatchewan's on, and they're even better when they're playing Regina."
Mullin said the atmosphere around this game should be particularly special when you combine the passionate fans of both schools, the planned pregame flyover by CF-18 fighter jets and the $25,000 post-game fireworks show. Doing a high-quality studio show isn't easy or cheap, though, and it gets even more pricey when you're going on location, especially when you have to ship expensive and specialized equipment across provinces. Mullin said his show's only able to do this because of the financial backing they've received from David Dube, a former Huskies' player who's the head of Saskatchewan's massive Concorde Group (which includes the show's title sponsor, Krown Produce) and has played a key role in funding the Huskies, particularly in their stadium renovations.
"We had a meeting this winter about where we wanted to go with it, and he stepped up in a very big way, a way that allowed us to invest in a set," Mullin said. "He's given us a telestrator for Game of the Week. And it allows me to hire three part-time staff for half the year."
Mullin said Dube is in this to promote the game for the long run, rather than just as a flash in the pan, and he's agreed to invest six figures in the show over three years.
"I've got a partner in this in David Dube who's in it for the long term," he said.
Some might wonder if a show funded by a guy prominently connected to the Huskies, a show based in Vancouver and a show that's largely seen over-the-air in Western Canada can really provide a national look at CIS football, but Mullin said their goal has always been and always will be to promote CIS football on a national level.
"The focus has always been national," he said. "We get people from every region, we talk about issues from every region."
He added that, somewhat unusually in the current Canadian broadcast landscape, Shaw's been very supportive of them promoting games aired elsewhere.
"We had Donnovan Bennett on once a week to promote University Rush (The Score's OUA game of the week), we promote (Atlantic University Sport broadcaster) Eastlink, we promote TSN, we promote The Score (now Sportsnet 360) and we promote ourselves," Mullin said.
Countdown U is going to a new level this year in terms of production values, but it will be many of the same people involved. Hosts Andrew Wadden and Ryan Sullivan are both returning, and Mullin said their on-camera chemistry will help make the show special.
"Andrew's been there since Day One, Ryan joined us last year, and they bring a heck of a lot of personality and a lot of natural chemistry," Mullin said. "You can't make that happen."
They've shipped their impressive desk and much of the rest of their equipment to Saskatchewan this weekend, and will be broadcasting from between the fans and the field. Mullin said he's not expecting mobs of fans to instantly throng around the set the way they often do for College GameDay, particularly not at first.
"College GameDay didn't become the monster it is overnight," he said. "We have to let the fans know who we are and what we're doing there. ... We walk before we run."
There will be technical challenges too, especially as they don't have a massive crew compared to most productions on bigger networks.
"It's ambitious for a crew the size of this show's to try something like this," Mullin said. "I'm really grateful for all the support I've received from Shaw."
If this show works out, though, we may see Countdown U do more on-location broadcasts this year and next.
"If this goes well, this may be something we take on the road every week," Mullin said.
Mullin said he thinks live pre-game broadcasts could really turn into a rallying point for fans and a way to get the atmosphere and experience of CIS football out there to new viewers, much as College GameDay has done for NCAA football stateside.
"Over a year or two years, it will hopefully turn into something that will attract fans like bugs to a light."
Krown Countdown U airs at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Friday live from Saskatoon on Shaw, Cogeco in Kingston, Eastlink in Wolfville and CanadaWest.tv everywhere. The Saskatchewan-Regina game can be seen afterwards on Shaw and CanadaWest.tv. In future weeks, Krown Countdown U will hit YouTube Wednesday of each week, be televised on Thursday on Shaw/Eastlink/Cogeco and be part of the pre-game show for Shaw's Canada West Game of the Week each Friday or Saturday. Follow the show and producer Jim Mullin on Twitter for more details.