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How to improve the CIS

The NCAA’s ugly sibling needs a makeover

Canadian Inter-university Sport (the CIS) functions at a competitive disadvantage. The association suffers from a lack of attention, money and overall cultural relevance. Here at the Carillon, we operate on a model that focuses on providing tangible advice that can aid in bettering campus sports (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves), so here are a few suggestions.

The CIS naturally lends itself to being compared to the NCAA. There’s only one massive problem with any attempt to make that particular link. If I may, I’d like to use a sports metaphor to explain this one. Suppose the NCAA is the major leagues, albeit with a metaphorical side of obvious sketchiness that would make Pete Rose go pale in fright, then the CIS is a t-ball team from a hamlet in Newfoundland.

However, the entire reason the NCAA can print money is the precise motivation behind me preferring, at least on a moral level, the CIS. Namely, that the latter has not concocted a system by which student-athletes are used as muscle toting slaves in order to make exorbitant amounts of cash for massive institutions.

Alas, even the morally high-grounded CIS cannot escape its own flaws. Don’t give up hope, university sports fans; there are a number of possible solutions. First, however, we must identify the problems facing Canadian university sport, beginning with how little fan support each team receives and how their parent association could be doing more to help.

Outside of the three major sports – hockey, basketball, and football – the CIS doesn’t draw many fans. Even then, very few show up to anything other than the championship tournaments. The uninitiated would argue that this is because the teams just aren’t that good, but they are sadly mistaken. Let us look at the Carleton University men’s basketball team, national champion in eleven of the last thirteen seasons.

Just this year, prior to the CIS season beginning in earnest, the Ravens defeated two NCAA Division I teams (Valparaiso and Baylor), while losing by a small margin to other American teams like Murray State and Texas Tech. With wins like that, some would expect them to run roughshod over every Canadian team they faced, but in fact, the Ravens lost to our neighbours to the north, the U of S Huskies. Now, are we dealing in extremities here? Yes we most certainly are, but if even half of the teams in the CIS were able to get within twenty points of Carleton, then Canadian university sports would be better off. However, this would require support that is not currently available to Canadian schools.

NCAA schools, not matter how the funding is acquired, are not hurting for funds. The University of Kentucky’s baseball team – itself not the moneymaker that basketball or football are – is not hosting fundraisers at their campus bar in order to subsidize their athletic income. But what produces more money? Answer: television agreements.

In terms of media partners, the CIS is sorely lacking. Sorry Sportsnet, time to move over. The only way to increase interest in the CIS nationally is to showcase the sport’s best and give each team some more regular coverage. As a sporting body, you can’t only showcase your championship games and then not cover the sport the rest of the year. Not only does the sport seem to come out of the collective blue, but also such an approach doesn’t lend itself to the narrative rhythms on which sporting events thrive. How am I supposed to care about these athletes when I know nothing about them until about five seconds before tip-off? Once the CIS can establish itself on the national sports scene, something it has (arguably) only succeeded in doing on the football field, then the possibilities expand.

Pretending in our blissful little fantasy world that the CIS has suddenly turned itself into a tangible media commodity, there are a number of places where increased resources could – and should – be invested.

First off, increase the amount of funding given to each of the CIS-sanctioned sports. Enough with hockey teams having to have steak nights and basketball teams running endless fundraisers. This goal comes with a price: those teams who do not pull their weight should not continue at each of the Canadian universities. In no world is supporting a failing a team a recipe for collective success. Club teams that succeed and are capable of drawing an audience should be expanded and marketed. Sports like rugby have a regional appeal, but put them on the national stage, infuse them with the wave of good will that comes with a resurgence in popularity (who knew that this decade would see an uptick in interest in a sport from the 1890s?), and who knows what could happen. With a wide a variety of sports being offered, there is no reason why the CIS should not have had an offer for ever sport open for championship tournament bidding earlier this year. Sure, basketball, hockey and football are alluring, but why can’t softball, wrestling, or track and field receive the same amount of love?

Sadly, the CIS’ rise to sporting world domination seems entirely unlikely. However, if such a miracle is going to manifest itself, it will take some money, some marketing genius, and some creative thinking. Canada’s collegiate sports should not stay on the backburner and more attention means more funding; more funding, at least in theory, means more opportunity; and more opportunity means local athletes staying home, giving back to their community and not fleeing south of the border as fast as you can say student visa. The Canadian sport community, of which sports media is a valuable player, should be able to pride itself on the facilities it offers, rather than bemoaning the exodus of almost every local athlete of note that is not playing the CHL, but that can’t happen without tremendous support and a solid commitment to the cause.

About John Loeppky

I am an athlete with a writing problem, or a writer with a sports problem, you decide. When I'm not editing, playing wheelchair sports, or advocating for the disabled, you can find me de-stressing with friends.