CIS football interlock in 2015 far from done deal, but project partners hearing 'more positives'

Montreal Carabins quarterback Gabriel Cousineau is tackled by McMaster Marauders' Mike Kashak (77) and Johnathan Ngeleka, right, during first half CIS Vanier Cup football action in Montreal Saturday, November 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Montreal Carabins quarterback Gabriel Cousineau is tackled by McMaster Marauders' Mike Kashak (77) and Johnathan Ngeleka, right, during first half CIS Vanier Cup football action in Montreal Saturday, November 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Creating true interconference play in Canadian university football is akin to running a two-minute drill where the goalposts keep moving, but there is progress nonetheless.

In December, University of Saskatchewan booster David Dube and project partner Jim Mullin, a Vancouver broadcaster, met with CIS coaches to discuss a detailed proposal for a Northern 8 national interlock series that would be blended into the regular season. Dube is prepared to foot the bill for all TV production costs for interlocking games. While building consensus between athletic directors and conferences from across Canada is no easy task, there seems to be momentum. There's also a realization that offering something new might embody the best shot of getting regular-season CIS football back on English-language broadcast TV.

"We had a very productive conversation with the athletic directors from the RSEQ," says Mullin, who met with the athletic directors from the Quebec conference's six football-playing schools on on Wednesday and also met earlier in the week with representatives of the  Laval Rouge et Or, obviously a key stakeholder in CIS football's future.

"The more we talk about our proposal, the more positives seem to be generated. I understand that they need to discuss this because of the effect it will have on their schedule. We appreciate that they're willing to focus on this, considering the abbreviated timeframe that we all have to work with on this issue."

The Northern 8 propsoal calls for the national interlock to kick off this season that would include Quebec powers Laval and Montreal, two Canada West teams and four Ontario University Athletics squads. Atlantic conference teams would still have an annual interlock game against a team from Quebec. 

The scheduling model that Mullin has formulated illustrates how games could be woven into each conference's schedule. It could be further expanded in both 2016 and '17. Accounting for season-to-season player turnover is also built in, which means a depleted team wouldn't receive a daunting schedule. It would be one way to refresh the sport.

"I think there is a willingness to look at alternatives now," says Wilfrid Laurier University director of athletics and recreation Peter Baxter, who was an observer at that December meeting. "We want to present an alternative to the networks, to packaged programming and the NCAA. We certainly, and Mr. Dube spoke to it, have the product to show Canadians.

"It would provide a marketable TV property to have interlock along with those rivalry games, like Laval-Montreal or the Panda Game between Carleton and Ottawa or an age-old rivalry like Queen's-Western," Baxter adds. "I think we have to be open to that but at the same time we have to be inclusive.

"The one thing that's played out with the coaches is they want a strong CIS from coast to coast. The coaches are not into tiering but want to put the best product on TV."

'Eliminate the blowouts'

Maintaining the four-conference alignment while creating more apples-to-apples matchups is a major component of the Northern 8. One selling point for university football is the connection to the Canadian Football League. Creating more meaningful competition could aid the CFL in identifying Canadian-raised talent.

"From my point of view, potentially this could be a very positive thing for CIS sport and for the development of CIS athletes," says Richard MacLean, president of Football Canada. "Part of what I get when I talk with CFL coaches is that the more competition these guys face, the more they're game-ready. Some of the top teams only play two or three tough games a season. If the CIS can reduce the blowouts, I think that brings up the level of competition needed to mature the athletes.

"Some clubs in the last 10 years have put a substantial amount of money into their programs and some have not, which is fine — they're student athletes," Taylor adds. "In reality, from our point of view from developing elite athletes and more athletes, we're seeing more Canadian players in the NFL, more Canadian players in the CFL that play different positions. We're seeing an influx of real talent. If we can give them more opportunity to fine-tune their skills.

"I really can't see a negative. We have to start somewhere."

The perception that CIS football has a lot of blowouts is also the reality. Forty-three games in 2014, about 40 per cent of the regular season, were decided by 30 or more points. The Northern 8 proposal calls, for instance, for a top OUA team to replace the annual mismatch against a developing team such as York or Waterloo with an interlocking game. Middle pack of the conference, teams ranked fifth through eighth, would also play more often. 

"One of the items that is very important to us in the interlock project is addressing parity," Mullin says. "We feel that we have that we have thought out a plan that works out for the developing teams, and the developing conferences as much as the teams and conferences who are at the top of the game.

"With our parity-based schedule, there is potential for 17 of the 43 games that were blowouts would be rescheduled with games between teams of more similar strength. We could deal with 40 per cent of those blowout games. There's no guarantee of that, of course. But the question the CIS and all these conferences have to ask themselves is, 'can you afford to go into 2015 with the exact same formula you had in 2014 that produced that?' "

The next step will be a national meeting of athletic directors from across Canada during the last week of January. Each conference's schedule, which is made independently from CIS, is typically released in March.

The prospect of a TV deal ought to buy the proponents of interlock more time to sell everyone on adopting the plan. That could address concern about marketing the Vanier Cup. Without a season-long buildup, it drew an audience of 320,000 of Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360 in November. That's about half the size of the audience on Radio-Canada, which airs RSEQ games every week. At the same time, that combined viewership compares well with what TSN drew for the College Football Playoff games on Jan. 1.

"There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle," Baxter says. "You really have to allow the conferences time to digest this."

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