When Pierre Lafontaine became CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, it knew it was adding an idea person, a vision guy, and sometimes logistics would be left to people on the ground, or would have to be sorted out magically.
Sportsnet, with a media partnership that runs through 2018-19, is committed to giving university sports a bigger platform. The network's early returns have been lukewarm, though. English-language viewership for football's Vanier Cup in on Sportsnet 360 late November was about 65 per cent lower than it was for the 2012 championship that was aired on TSN's main channel as part of its 2012 Grey Cup coverage. At least there is a willingness to try something semi-halfway radical to break outside of the traditional CIS nice. It announced on Thursday that is going to pack its four basketball and hockey championships into the second week of March, with the hockey tournaments also adopting hoops' Final 8 format as previously reported by Eh Game.
"The exciting venture will allow CIS and its broadcasting partners — Sportsnet and Radio-Canada — to showcase over 20 hours of university sport on television over a two-day period, including Semifinal Saturday and Championship Sunday," the CIS release states.
It is exciting, in the way that any movement is more exciting than stasis. The good news is this allays concerns of how much priority Sportsnet would give to CIS coverage that arose after the network bought the national NHL rights this fall. There's good intentions here, although that 'over 20 hours' talk would mean having coverage spread across the umpteen channels. There are trade-offs, though. A quick list of pros and cons:
Easier-to-find games — This is the biggest stumbling block for a product that has bounced from TSN to The Score (R.I.P.) to TSN and now to Sportsnet. Plenty of people say they would watch a university game if it was more accessible or convenient, much like they always mean to visit that older relative or watch a Canadian film. (And judging from the TV ratings, they make good on that about as often.) There's little excuse if this property is promoted properly.
A casual fan is more apt to watch a large portion of coverage on one weekend. People value their time. Commiting to watching men's basketball one weekend, women's hoops and women's hockey the next weekend, and finally men's hockey is a lot to ask.
More attractive sponsorship opportunities — Wall to wall is the way to go; that is how the Olympics, NCAA Tournament and the world junior hockey championship are packaged. Traditional fans might hate having the national media do an in-and-out, one-off drop-in on a niche sport, but that is the way it works.
Advertisers are generally nice people, but they also need to know their spots will be seen. Having it one weekend means reaching all the people who are interested in any one of four CIS sports. Obviously, not every 'CIS guy' watches all four.
Better-rested basketball players — In order for Sportsnet to dictate the tip-off times for Semifinal Saturday in men's and women's hoops, the quarter-finals will be played one day earlier with the survivors getting a day of R&R.
Moreover, it could help the quality of play since the current 3-in-3 format is just too demanding. It diminishes the chance for a lower seed team with a smaller rotation but perhaps a charismatic star — see Saint Mary's basketball guard Justine Colley, whose Huskies were worn down by the juggernaut Windsor Lancers in the national final on March 16 — to take down a Goliath. It could also make for better-played games when CIS is on display for people who don't darken the gym doors in January.
More Miracle on Ice potential — An eight-team, single-elimination hockey championship hasn't exactly been welcomed with open arms. Still, suppose a hitherto woebegone also-ran such as Graham Wise's Ryerson Rams reaches the University Cup and somehow upsets Alberta in the quarter-final. There's an instant Cinderella storyline for the semi. That could be good; CIS faces the perception that the same teams win all the time.
Do student-athletes get still their due — Quaint as it might be, spreading out the championships did provide more a platform to CIS players who aren't even celebrities on their own often indifferent, insular, inward-looking campuses. One barely knows who these people are who are playing, and yet there's more risk of them being lost in the shuffle.
Who pays for it — One OUA school estimates it could cost $35,000 to send a hockey team, with a travelling party in the 30s, to last weekend's University Cup in Saskatoon. Travelling across the country to only play one game often strains in a tight-budgeted athletic department's bottom line. But hey, Super Championship Weekend.
Downgrading the regular season — The real rivalries in CIS are at the conference level — Carleton-Ottawa basketball, UNB-Saint Mary's men's hockey, Montreal-Laval football and so forth. There's often more emotion staked on winning a conference, and many CIS folk still have this idea it should be reflected in who gets a shot at winning the nationals. Adding two more teams to the hockey championships works against that.
In women's hockey, coaches floated the idea of using curling's page playoff system. The four conference winners could lose a game and remain alive with a chance to reach the gold-medal game, while the at-large/host teams would be one-and-done.
Small schools squeezed out — Two weeks ago, tiny St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., hosted the women's hockey championship. It was a great marketing opportunity for STU, showing its unique character as embodied by being a small school that sees women's hockey as part of the overall student experience (unlike STU's larger rival school, the University of New Brunswick). With the core audience split in four directions, is there as much of a chance for a small school to get exposure to prospective students?
Possible deterioration of coverage from other media — Alberta, Carleton, Laurier, McGill, Saint Mary's, Saskatchewan, Windsor each had multiple basketball or hockey teams reach nationals this month. Alberta and McGill each went 4-for-4 (it must be something about having unique names for the female and male teams).
Good for them. However, in a time of shrinking editorial budgets, one unintended consequence is that media outlets that do make a point to cover university teams will have to make choices about what team will be covered. That's the way of the world, though; non-rights-holding media aren't even a priority these days.
What does a school with one full-time media relations staffer — a NCAA Division I program often has five or six — do when its basketball team is playing in Ottawa at the same time its hockey team is in Saskatoon? Two teams at the men's Final 8 last month had no media relations person with them, giving coaches free reign to cut off interviews after 75 seconds. How's that promoting CIS?
Will the coverage's quality match the quantity — How Sportsnet assigns its personalities to the events will be worth watching. For every Tim Micallef or Arash Madani whose passion for university sport is genuine, the on-air talent and the depth and width of coverage often rankles diehard fans. With Sportsnet concentrating so many resources on the NHL, how it coordinates four different staging sites could be a challenge.
Either way, this is the great leap forward for CIS. Lafontaine is doing the job he was hired for.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.