Former CUSN Staff Writer Carlos Verde is bidding adieu to covering university sport in Canada. Here are his parting thoughts on the state of the industry today, and how it can improve going forward.
University sport in Canada is a beautiful, unique entity.
Here in the North, student-athletes hold up both ends of the bargain suggested by their title. There are no glitzy national television deals, nor big-time apparel sponsorships — this is amateur sport at its raw core, with heartwarming stories to match.
And as somebody who spent the better part of three years immersed in the world of then-CIS hockey and football, I’m confident in saying the current model falls well short of fulfilling its potential.
Don’t get me wrong: I got the absolute most out of my time in the university ranks. I loved the bus trips to distant outposts like Sudbury and Trois-Rivieres, being on the ice in the aftermath of Alberta’s stunning women’s hockey title and covering a trio of Panda Games in the national capital.
It was all fantastic fun.
But, with few exceptions, nobody beyond those directly affiliated with the sports — players, parents, coaches, administrators and the smattering of student journalists dedicated to covering them — cares.
Outside of said exceptions — think Laval football, Carleton basketball, UNB hockey, etc. — the shuttering of varsity program x at school y wouldn’t even register with most student bodies.
I say this only because I care deeply about university sport in this country, and believe there is a path for it to improve.
My five steps forward for U SPORTS:
1. Move on from the Rebrand
There’s no sugarcoating it: The decision to rebrand in October 2016 was poorly executed and bizarrely timed. Member institutions still had CIS branding in many of their facilities through the end of the 2016-17 school year; the first major post-rebrand event, the 52nd Vanier Cup in Hamilton, drew a disappointing crowd of 7,115.
Hitting the refresh button was necessary, but the timing was rushed and — as evidenced by the year-late arrival of the rebranded website — all proverbial ducks were not lined up.
It was hardly a smooth transition into the new era, but it’s time to leave that bruise in the past; introduce a new scholarship program or premium sponsor, anything to boost PR and change the conversation.
2. Get on the same page
For the brand to succeed, U SPORTS needs every conference and member school to not only pull its own weight but buy into the larger brand.
Counterpoint: The rebranding of the Canada West conference this year put that of its own governing body on blast, as the kids say. From the slick logo to its clean new website and improved digital presence — all delivered on a firm timeline — CW’s rebrand encompassed everything U SPORTS’s did not.
It’s hard to picture an individual conference south of the border upstaging the NCAA, but that is precisely what happened here.
While I understand it’s impossible to hold a smaller school like Algoma (enrolment: 1,600) to the same standard as a UBC (62,923) or Toronto (60,595), the national governing body must institute basic standards in the areas of marketing, social media and student engagement.
A brand is only as strong as its weakest product, and as it stands the lows in this country are incredibly low.
3. Student-first marketing
When Graham Brown was named U SPORTS CEO two-plus years ago, he pledged to make university sport relevant in the crowded Canadian market.
The challenge that he and others have yet to conquer is the sheer futility of trying to attract serious interest from national media and sponsors for a product that doesn’t retain consistent interest in its own markets — in this case, largely apathetic campuses.
Why should TSN or Sportsnet feel obligated to negotiate a deal more than the goodwill, three-weeks-a-year schedule currently in place when university students themselves are largely not interested?
On the individual school level, a disengaged student body results in low attendance, terrible in-game atmosphere and poor alumni engagement rates down the road.
Get it right on individual campuses. Then you’ll have a valuable product to pitch.
4. Value your assets
The Brown-era CIS had also pledged to tell the stories of its athletes on a broader scale, but seems to have taken for granted one of the main sources of its pre-existing coverage: Student journalists.
U SPORTS launched a watershed correspondent program last year which amounted to offering students press passes and exposure in exchange for free labour.
Reviews of the program have been mixed; I know some students straight-up loved their experience, while others felt marginalized and took their unpaid labour to other outlets where they felt more creatively empowered.
What baffles me is the rift that exists between U SPORTS and some of the country’s premier student journalists — a number of whom write/wrote for this very outlet.
I’m all for brand protectionism, but being adversarial towards the few dedicated people who cover a given university sport year-round is a head-scratcher; why scare away the passionate reporters who provide unparalleled coverage of your product? For free!
5. Look South.
The comparison between Canadian and American university sport is well-worn territory, and comparing the top tiers on either side of the border is an unfair, lopsided exercise.
But at the Division-III level south of the border, there exists a model from which Canadian schools could learn.
Having seen firsthand what schools in New York state — where economic standards are at best on-par with small-town Ontario — are able to do, I believe there are a series of strategic partnerships to be made and lessons to be learned.
Some of these American D-III schools — specifically SUNY institutions — are functioning at similar tuition rates and staff sizes to Canadian institutions, yet enjoy significantly better brand recognition and student engagement.
Making an effort to study how they succeed and applying some of those strategies in a Canadian context seems like a no-brainer.
So please, U SPORTS, I implore you to reflect on your policies and refocus your marketing efforts towards students. For the short- and long-term viability of your product on the national stage.
Yours in sport,
Aside: Thank you to the coaches, players and administrators who made my time on the university circuit so memorable. You made the bus trips, late nights and early mornings worth it.