55 Yard Line - CFL

TSN's Dave Naylor broke an interesting story Sunday night that the Vanier Cup (pictured above left, hoisted by 2009 Queen's Golden Gaels Danny Brannagan and Osie Ukwuoma) would be played at B.C. Place next year on the same 2011 weekend as the Grey Cup (pictured above right, hoisted by Anwar Stewart and Anthony Calvillo after the 2009 game). Naylor reported that it's a deal brokered by Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young's MRX sports marketing company (which owns the rights to the Vanier). The Canadian Press then reinforced that story with backing from an anonymous CFL source, and the CFL and CIS issued a joint statement confirming the news today and noting that the game will be played on the Friday before the Grey Cup rather than the Saturday it's been on the last few years. Thus, this is clearly going ahead. The question is if it's a good thing or not.

From this corner, this is a move that seems likely to benefit both sides. As Rob Pettapiece highlighted over at The CIS Blog, the two championships were last together in 2007 in Toronto, and that event went very well (using the same Friday/Sunday format proposed for 2011). I was on the scene for the first recent detached Vanier (Hamilton in 2008), and it was definitely a different atmosphere; there was a decent amount of fan and media support, but nothing compared to the heights of Toronto in 2007. It isn't clear how the two events differed from a revenue perspective (Hamilton drew 13,873, while Toronto had 26,787 fans in attendance, but the Vanier tickets were bundled with Grey Cup ones in 2007, so the revenue all depends on the percentage CIS got), but there was certainly much more buzz around the 2007 Vanier than there was around the 2008 one. That wasn't thanks to matchup either, as the 2008 event (featuring the Western Mustangs, coached by former Hamilton Tiger-Cats and McMaster Marauders coach Greg Marshall, and the powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or) had considerably better distances and ties to the participants than the 2007 one (Saint Mary's - Manitoba).

Unlike the U.S., where there's often a large divide between fans of the college and professional games, I'd argue that the two are much more closely linked in Canada. Not all CFL fans follow CIS football closely, but the vast majority of the CIS fans I've run into over the years are avid followers of the CFL as well. Moreover, football of any sort is generally subordinate to hockey up here, so it has a smaller pool of fans to draw upon. Splitting up those fans by hosting the two games on the same weekend in different cross-country sites doesn't seem like the best move, particularly when they can be combined quite easily.

That unification might be even more important from a media coverage standpoint. I wasn't at last year's Vanier, so I can't comment on what the group covering it was like, but in 2008, it seemed to be mostly media from the two cities (London, Ontario and Quebec City) there, along with a few representatives from the Toronto papers and radio stations. By contrast, I was in Calgary for last year's Grey Cup, and it understandably featured a much larger group of media from across the country. It's not like those reporters and their media outlets only care about the professional game, as quite a few of them cover CIS football during the season and vote in the weekly Top 10 polls, but their outlets are always going to send them to the Grey Cup rather than the Vanier. The Grey Cup is simply a bigger event that interests a wider range of people (which is also why I'll be in Edmonton covering it this week, rather than in Quebec covering the Vanier). By putting the Vanier Cup together with the Grey Cup, all the media that descend on the city for the CFL event have the opportunity to cover the CIS one as well, and I'd imagine that most of them will take it. That's why Manitoba's Vanier win in 2007 (pictured, right) got more attention nationally than Laval's 2008 triumph or the Golden Gaels' victory last year. That increased attention could be huge for the profile of the university game going forward.

This also provides a tremendous opportunity for CIS football to pick up new fans, especially if Vanier tickets are included with Grey Cup ones. Many of the CFL fans heading to the Grey Cup descend on the host city for most of the preceding week to experience the atmosphere and parties, and I'd imagine that even many of them with no prior exposure to CIS football would be interested in watching another football game that Friday, especially if it's included in their ticket price. If they like what they see, they might become fans of the university game year-round. This is a tailor-made chance to grow the CIS fan base, and it could be incredibly beneficial for university football in Canada.

Some may dismiss this move and argue that the NCAA would never put its bowls together with the Super Bowl, but that's a false analogy. The NCAA doesn't need to do that; the college game is so high-profile in the States that it can easily stand on its own. The CIS game can stand on its own as well, and it's been doing fine over the last couple of years, but this has the potential to dramatically boost its audience and coverage.

That doesn't mean there aren't potential problems with this setup. CIS and the CFL haven't always gotten along amicably, and both of these events carry a considerable number of their own events. If things aren't scheduled properly and CFL and CIS events wind up going head-to-head, there really won't be much of a benefit seen from this at all. I don't think that's likely to be the case, though; the two organizations seem to be working well together lately, and that's shown by some of the cross-promotional stuff they've done in the last few years (for example, the CFL regularly features CIS football recaps on its website, and CIS and its member universities frequently promote stories about former CIS players now in the CFL and current university players who are CFL prospects). Moreover, this amount of lead time should be sufficient to work out the kinks and draw up a schedule and plan that works for both organizations.

One other issue that's been raised (by Ubyssey coordinating editor Justin McElroy) is that Vancouver is hardly a natural CIS football market these days. The Vancouver area used to have two reasonably good CIS football schools in UBC and SFU, but SFU defected to the NCAA's Division II this season and UBC's football program has been in rebuilding mode for the last few years and doesn't have the largest fan base at the moment. There are other CIS schools in the area and the province, but none of them play football; UBC's nearest football opponent is Calgary. That suggests there won't be a huge number of preexisting CIS fans in the area ready to head to the Vanier. There's a reason B.C. has never hosted a Vanier Cup, and there's no way that streak would be broken if it wasn't hosting the Grey Cup as well next season.

However, I don't think this is necessarily a major issue. B.C. does have a lot of CFL fans, and there's already strong interest in Grey Cup tickets out here. That's a prime target market for increasing the CIS game's exposure. Moreover, some CIS fans from whichever schools wind up in the game will wind up flying to Vancouver, and probably more of them will be able to justify that trip for both the Vanier and Grey Cup games than if they were heading to a Vanier alone. Vancouver's hardly the country's strongest CIS market, but I doubt the 2011 Vanier will be sparsely attended.

Overall, there's too much natural synergy between the CIS and CFL games not to try this again. It's not a desperation move in my mind, as CIS could have gone on doing its own thing with separate Vanier Cup games in college football hotbeds like Quebec City for the forseeable future. It is a good move from this viewpoint, as putting the Vanier together with the Grey Cup has the potential to dramatically increase the exposure and profile of the CIS game. We'll see how it turns out, but from here, this bodes well for Canadian university football.

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