Sportsnet punts OUA football coverage, but blaming network is an easy way out

The Eh Game

These are bleak times for amateur sports coverage in Canada. Ontario University Athletics is just the latest to pay a price for Rogers overpaying for the national NHL rights. Over the past weekend, the network finally acknowledged what was pretty much an open secret: it has dropped the weekly football package that the country's largest athletic conference already helped underwrite in exchange for visibility. Thus the Yates Cup, the oldest football championship in North America, will not be televised in November (the OUA is launching a webcast network instead).

The easy — and perhaps most self-righteously fun — is to throw Sportsnet some shade for drastically scaling back its university coverage just one year after signing a six-year media rights contract with Canadian Interuniversity Sport.(For the uninitiated, CIS can only sell the rights to its championships; conferences have jurisdiction over their regular season and playoffs.) It is somewhat staggering that a network that committed $5.2 billion to the NHL doesn't have the "capacity" to staff a Saturday afternoon football game. There is more to it, though, than blaming the big, bad broadcaster.

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Wildly divergent budgets for football, from school to school and conference to conference — keeping up with the Lavals — has created a competition problem. The same issue exists in basketball, which has come to be dominated by Dave Smart's Carleton Ravens juggernaut, with the rival Ottawa Gee-Gees having emerged as a foil.

This is a small sample size, granted, but in 2009 and '10 the Yates Cup games were down-to-the-wire thrillers (Queen's edging Western 43-39 and the Mustangs getting by Ottawa 26-25 on a last-second field goal by Lirim Hajrullahu). The past three have been decided by 22, 17 and 29 points, which is an audience-killer. Point being, being off TV should give pause for reflection.

From Scott Hastie (@Scott1Hastie):

Parity is a big and well-known factor. Even the gap between the Yates Cup winner and the runner-up has been massive in recent years and the games that should be an easy sell to casual fans have results that are foregone conclusions.

Sportsnet giving up on the league after one year of coverage is nothing short of damning. If a sport is not on TV, does it even exist? In the age where TSN has five (!!!) stations and Sportsnet has four (Sportsnet [regional], 360, SN1 and Sportsnet World), you have to be a wholly unattractive property to not be picked up by someone. Both broadcasters ignoring the league also says to an impressionable first-year student that this stuff is not important. (cisblog.ca)

Of course, it's not a wholly unattractive property. The calibre of the top performers in football and basketball in CIS is continuing to improve, thanks to improved investment in coaching and better (if not all the way there) financial support for student-athletes. See former Montreal Carabins offensive lineman David Foucault having a strong training camp with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Or see that there was more CIS representation on Canada's national's men's basketbal team during its recent European exhibition tour.

How to get that across to incoming university students and recent grads — yes, that coveted age 18-to-34 demo — is a challenge. Many media consumers in that age bracket forgo having cable, let alone the extra tiers. For the OUA, it's possible that going from subsidizing broadcasts on little-watched SN360 to streaming its games might be part of re-connecting with the public. (Go to a university game these days, and you barely see any fans in their late twenties and thirties. There's a huge gap between the current students who turn out and the average age of alumni and people from the surrounding community.)

Sportsnet's bit of back-patting bafflegab for dropping OUA football is that it is "focused on building a national CIS presence and supporting CIS athletes across the country." That would explain why it didn't produce a single tweet about, say, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb and Carleton beating the NCAA's Memphis Tigers on Saturday. Or about Ottawa star Johnny Berhanemeskel having four consecutive 25-point games against U.S. foes.

Becoming more self-directed might not be the worst twist for the OUA in the long run. Losing the football package is a sad sign of the times, but a sport being on TV just because it's uniquely Canadian long ceased to be a birthright. Junior hockey and curling absorbed this lesson long ago.

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

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