U Sports needs to take a look in the mirror
The 52nd Vanier Cup took place at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Nov. 26. This probably comes as a shock to you, considering less than 5,000 people attended the game and 243,000 watched on Sportsnet. For comparison, Tim Hortons Field can hold 24,000 and just over 300,000 watched the Vanier in 2015 and 2014.
This probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but it should. McMaster played a role in hosting and organizing the event, and student dollars help fund University Sports. The investment students make is not paying off and leadership needs to acknowledge they are behind the times.
For those who follow the U Sports, the Vanier news is frustrating given the cockiness shown by CEO Graham Brown. Four days before the game, Brown told the Hamilton Spectator that he expected 16,000 or 17,000 to attend.
This quote was insulting. When Brown said it, there were about 7,000 tickets sold. Moving 10,000 tickets in a short period of time, when the game was between two out-of-province teams, was never going to happen, and all U Sports fans knew it. U Sports would not even list the attendance in the box score on their website, likely too embarrassed at their own failure to post the dismal figure.
To his credit, Brown has made himself available to the media and he is candid when talking about what university sport needs to do to make itself relevant in the Canadian sports media landscape. But it’s not the only surprising quote we have seen from him.
In June, Brown told the Globe and Mail he plans to nearly triple the U Sports budget in the span of three years, going from $3.25 million to $10 million. A few months later, the league launched their rebrand, going from Canadian Interuniversity Sport to U Sports. The Vanier Cup, hosted at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, was supposed to be the official transition. U Sports could not have chosen a worse event to use as the launching pad.
It gets uglier if you dig into the nuts and bolts of their rebrand. U Sports is pitching itself to corporate sponsors as a way for them to access the 18-24 year-old market. If you tuned into the game on Nov. 26, that market was not represented. There were some undergraduates in attendance, but the broadcast’s crowd shots showed people mostly above the age of 30.
And yes, the two competing teams were Calgary and Laval. Defenders will say it is hard to sell tickets for two out-of-province teams, but what does that say about U Sports? You can’t get interest in the national championship of your most popular sport? (Crazy idea: don’t host neutral-site events.)
The 52nd Vanier Cup was an abject disaster. U Sports tried to draw attention to themselves with the rebrand, highlighting how they have turned a page as an organization. Instead, it cemented the existing beliefs in the brand: the support and interest for events is regional and the undergraduate market is not that excited about U Sports.
We can hope that the Vanier result teaches Brown a lesson: you don’t have all the answers and fixing Canadian university sport requires more than a facelift. Changing the name of the league doesn’t mask its problems; it only changes the shade of lipstick on the pig.