CIS vs. NCAA – The difference in popularity, and how to change it

sold out - march madness

This past weekend was the CIS National championship for both men and women’s basketball and hockey. Other than football, which takes place in early November, they’re arguably the most watched and attended sporting events of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) season. The largest event of the weekend took place in Ontario’s capital city on Sunday afternoon. The Carleton Ravens went to war against their cross-city rivals, the Ottawa Gee-Gees, for the second straight year, at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (formally known as Maple Leaf Gardens) in downtown Toronto in front of over 3,500 fans.

On Apr. 6, the NCAA basketball championship game will be hosted at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, ID. Yes, this is a university national championship game, being hosted in an NFL football stadium, in front of 80,000 screaming fans and millions of viewers watching around the world on CBS and ESPN television.

As a graduate of the only Bachelor of Sport Management program in Canada, I’ve learned a lot over my past four years about how to run and manage sports events, particularly in the CIS. However, I’ve also had the great fortune of listening to so many guest speakers from the United States who have had hands-on experience working at NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) events, expressing the tradition and culture that is so consistent with U.S collegiate sports. The number one thing I’ve learned about sports in the NCAA is that it’s become a religion. Students, alumni and civilians of each city become glued to the pride of their school and support them 24/7. It’s a life commitment that individuals feel the need to be a part of, and you can argue that in a lot of places in the United States, collegiate sports are by far more popular than professional.

Despite seeing all of the passion from fans across the U.S on TV, Steven Sazant (Assistant Sport Editor at The Brock Press), gave me a hands on perspective of what it’s like to be in the moment of an NCAA spectacle.

“I’ve always dreamed of attending an academic institution in the United States. After being able to pursue an exchange opportunity at the University of Tennessee, I was privileged to attend college football and basketball games. The football stadium held 102,455 people, being the sixth-largest stadium in the world. The basketball arena held 21,678 people, which is a greater capacity than the Air Canada Centre. Both of these facilities were on the university’s campus, and you would never see that in Canada. Experiencing Tennessee’s journey to their eventual March Madness success was something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” said Sazant.

This year, the University of Toronto opened a brand new $58 million high performance sports facility named the Goldring Centre. It has a 2,000-seat state of the art arena that houses the men and women’s Toronto Varsity Blues basketball and volleyball teams. In a city with a population of over 5 million, the Varsity Blues did not sell out a single regular season game the entire season.

So why is the NCAA so much more popular than the CIS on a national and global level?

One of the first reasons that come to mind is because 99 per cent of NFL players were former NCAA athletes, the Majority of NBA players are as well. However, the same can’t be said about the NHL or MLB.

Hockey is Canada’s sport, and yet the NCAA still out-supports the CIS by a mile when it comes to attending and watching hockey games.

There isn’t a single national television broadcast of any CIS sports before the semi-finals of a national championship. In the U.S, there are 10+ national coverage games a week for hockey, basketball, and football, leading up to the national championships.

Ticket prices for a national championship game in the CIS are between $18 to $24. In the NCAA, it’s between $225 to $10,000.

The biggest downfall which, arguably, is the number one reason why CIS awareness and support is a dismal compared to the NCAA is the lack of passion and onus that alumni take on in support of their former school. If you’re an American and you go to University, that school becomes your team for life. Most alumni come back at least once a year to support their school, it’s in their DNA. It’s the passion and love that they have from the four plus years of undergrad studies that have made them so addicted to school spirit.

So how do we fix this in Canada? It’s something that is certainly going to take time. The biggest change has to come not from the students themselves, but the alumni and the community. There are thousands more alumni and community citizens than there are students. The more supportive and aware that the alumni are, the more increased attention that CIS sports can garner.

Much like the University of Toronto’s new Goldring Centre for performance sport, other schools have to start creating facilities like these to give athletes more luxury in order to improve their game. Athletes want to be the best they can be, and better training/workout facilities can help make that happen.

Once you get the talent, it has to be marketed to get people into it. Broadcasting rights, sponsorships, ticket and merchandising sales have all got to take precedence. Once that comes, the fan support will increase, which will eventually force larger stadiums to be built out of necessity.

This is also the time to do it in Canada, and especially in Toronto where over 5 million people have been begging for years for some kind of sports to cheer about. The Maple Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays have all been a disappointment in this millennium, which creates the perfect opportunity for CIS sports to take centre stage.

In CIS basketball the Carleton Ravens have beaten the Memphis Tigers of the NCAA twice in recent history. The Ottawa Gee-Gees beat the Indiana Hoosiers this year. Guys like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller played for those teams, and they are all currently in the NBA. There’s no reason why CIS sports can’t get to the level of the NCAA. It’s clear that the talent and entertainment factor is there when it comes to CIS sports, now it’s just got to get the awareness.

On Jan. 28, Brock University’s director of business development Robert Hilson created the first ever president’s game at Brock when the Badgers took on the Ryerson Rams in regular season action. After three to four weeks of consistent hype, the game sold out with 1,200 screaming fans. There was tons of in-game fan entertainment and the game was broadcasted on five different platforms (OUA.TV, CogecoTV Niagara, Rogers TV Toronto, CFBU 103.7 FM, and channel 10 in Brock University residences). There were over 150 alumni that came out to the event, 350 community members and the rest was filled with students. This was an historic night for Brock University and the CIS as a whole. However, it was only one game; consistency is the most important skill to have in starting to get something to trend.

The Badgers basketball team sold out three of their nine home games this season. Believe it or not, that’s the most sell-outs out of any school in the entire country. The Duke Blue Devils of the NCAA sold out every single conference game this year with 9,314 in attendance, and it’s been that way for years.

Who says we can get to a level where American basketball athletes are choosing Canadian schools on their path to becoming professionals? After all, Dr. James Naismith (the inventor of basketball) was Canadian.

Football is an even tougher sell for the CIS, especially anywhere east of Manitoba, as Canadian football rules are significantly different than the U.S. The largest of these differences is that in Canada you only have three downs to get a first down, compared to the U.S at four. You’re rewarded with one point for kicking the ball in the end zone in Canada; in the U.S you’re not. Finally, the last difference is that wide receivers are allowed a running start before a play begins in Canada, in the U.S you cannot motion forward whatsoever.

The CIS football season consists of eight regular season games (four at home). One home game from every school each year is sold out, and that’s the homecoming matchup, the rest consist minimal to nobody other than a few parents. This has been ongoing for years.

Even though it’s a tougher sell than basketball, and will take lots of time before a makeover could happen in any relation to the NCAA, there are still a few ways it can happen. Firstly, creating a product that is more exciting to watch. Increasing fan awareness through in-game fan entertainment, but more importantly provide much better training facility, so that more talented athletes want to come and be a part of particular CIS football programs. The other way to do so is to get faculty and staff members behind this initiative. Sports are a culture in the NCAA, and a part of everyday living for both male and female students that attend a particular institution. Having faculty members encourage student attendance and support at CIS events, use examples of CIS sport in the classroom, and even provide assignments or marks in relation to varsity school sports, can help create more interest across the country.

Despite basketball, and football being the most popular university sports in both Canada and the United States, there’s no reason why Canada’s ultimate sport of Hockey can’t match up.

Much like the NCAA in the U.S for basketball and football, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) is the number one junior development program for kids wanting to make it to the NHL. The Niagara Ice Dogs are in the OHL, and they’ve managed to grab the community’s attention, regardless of the team’s success. Night after night, the IceDogs packed close to a capacity crowd (5,300) into their brand new Meridian Centre to watch the future bright stars of hockey. The OHL is an established name in the U.S, just like the NCAA is in Canada. Many Americans make the big decisions in their teens to move to Canada to play in the OHL.

Although most players that come to play university hockey are unlikely to go to the NHL, they are still extremely talented and have a chance to go pro in Europe or play pro in North America at the ECHL, or AHL level.

One final way of creating more attention and focus on CIS sports in particular through hockey since it’s our nations sport is to have rivalries. The CIS is divided into four leagues: Canada West, AUS, RSEQ, and OUA. These leagues have the ability to create a schedule with rival games between teams with a competitive history or that are close geographically. Then the marketing can take over on social media, web-casts, live broadcasts, and even through fan support at each other’s schools. One thing that has been a key successful tradition over the years in the NCAA is cheerleading, live bands, and separate student sections at games. This creates bedlam inside arenas across the U.S with passionate fans from both sides doing whatever they can to help support their team.

Overall, it’s the love of the game and school spirit that has become the culture of millions across the U.S when it comes to collegiate sports. There is a ton of passion for sports in Canada as well, but there are just way too many Canadians unaware of when the games are happening, where they can be seen, and how talented the athletes truly are.

It’s sad being a Brock student, watching kids the same age as me in a different country having the time of their life, supporting their school among thousands of others in an enormous facility, while my same passion can only be shared with very few.

This needs to change, and it can only be done through increased awareness, and dedication amongst every varsity collegiate school across the country putting in 110 per cent in providing their student athletes with all that they need to become successful.

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