It should be said Marg McGregor at least started a conversation in this country about defining university sport. So it's intriguing that after a dozen years as CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, McGregor has left just as the debate picks up steam.
It doesn't take Gary Bettman to know the head honcho of any large sports organization is a lightning rod. While CIS doesn't get much media play outside of the Vanier Cup, it is large to the point of unwieldiness with members spread from Prince George, B.C., to St. John's. That means myriad frustrations over the status of university sport — examples include not having a live TV broadcast for the national championships in men's basketball for two years in a row, struggles with competitive balance in major team sports and above all else, a lack of investment in the system — were bound to be piled at McGregor's feet.
That might be easy way out, though. The best way to sum up McGregor's tenure — 12 years is a long time to run anything unless it's family business — is that she started some momentum to perhaps change the look of university sport in Canada. Whether that change will take remains to be seen.
The legacy is mixed at best, but hers is one of some bright ideas while not always having the resource to pull them off. Twelve to 15 years ago there was a more mom-and-pop store approach to university sport. Most universities didn't really consider the big picture beyond their own campus.
McGregor, along with a breed of athletic directors with business and marketing backgrounds rather than one in coaching, have started to alter that outlook. It hasn't been a layup. For instance, adding regional play-in tournaments for the Final 8 women's basketball championship went over somewhat like a lead balloon. Some schools found themselves forking out $20,000 to travel two time zones to play one sudden-death game. Twinning football's Vanier Cup with the CFL's Grey Cup also proved successful last season. But doing so alienated Desjardins, the event's erstwhile title sponsor, which was costly.
Own The Podium proposal
The bottom line is people involved have an idea of where to go. Thanks in large part to McGregor, some bridges were built with national sports federations. One can hail how women's sports have come of age more across the past decade, pointing to better-supported women's championships in basketball, rugby and hockey or a CIS soccer player such Laurier alumna Alyssa Lagonia playing internationally.
Like the country itself, defining what is university sport is elusive. It's always been uniquely Canadian, somewhere between a much less monetized version of the NCAA and a very sweaty extracurricular activity.
For close to a century, that was good enough. Just as Royal Crown Cola always has its fans, university teams had their small bands of student, alumni and community fans who accepted the product warts and all. They could put aside the age-old notion anything Canadian that's not hockey or sketch comedy is inherently second-rate. So be it if there was one completely hypothetical fan near Napanee, Ont., who lived and died with the Queen's Golden Gaels on fall Saturdays for every 10 football fanatics who watched U.S. college games on TV instead.
Is that a status quo or dry rot? Some who would say the purpose of CIS is to graduate students and contribute to campus life would say the former.
Many would say it's the latter. This summer, CIS is going to consider an Own The Podium proposal pitching a pilot project to install high-performance programs at several universities. It would start in basketball and volleyball, involving 12-20 schools across the country playing an extended 10-month season. It sounds good on paper, although a cynic would wonder (a) who's going to pay for it and (b) philosophically, even if you would like to see more (not all) future Olympians train in Canada rather than the U.S. (read: NCAA), should cash-strapped universities pick up the slack for national sports federations which might not be doing the job?
Whoever replaces McGregor is probably going to have to be a big-time business and marketing person. Figuring out how to build a CIS brand across a sparsely populated country is daunting, perhaps forever daunting. That goes double when one considers telecoms such as Bell and Rogers are putting all of their money into major sports (see the joint purchase of MLSE). Never mind convincing a corporation to sponsor a low-profile event in the wake of the economic downturn of the past few years. (As a footnote, CIS got a bad break when BlackBerry signed on a sponsor.)
It's not going to be brainstormed in one blog post. At least people are talking thanks to the pieces that have been put in place.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.