Queen's University — Since 1873
22nd November 2012

Scoping the state of CIS football

Saturday’s Vanier Cup could benefit Canadian football, but lingering parity issues must be addressed

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From many perspectives, this year’s Vanier Cup may be an ideal situation for CIS football. Pairing it with the Grey Cup in Toronto could provide a boost for the CIS product — but the league’s disparity remains a prevalent issue.

Last year, the Vanier Cup and Grey Cup were held in the same city for the first time since 2007, and the McMaster Marauders and Laval Rouge et Or put on a spectacular show. Everything suggests that this rematch would be a great showcase for the CIS product and something that will boost Canadian university football going forward.

However, it may not be enough to overcome CIS football’s chief problem: a growing lack of parity.

The same four teams won their conferences in 2011 and 2012 — the first time that’s ever happened in back-to-back seasons, and none of the conference finals were particularly close or exciting.

The national semifinals were even worse from a perspective of game quality: the Uteck Bowl saw Laval dismantle Acadia 42-7, while McMaster thumped Calgary 45-6 in the Mitchell Bowl.

Those blowouts were bad enough, but the parity issues within CIS football go even deeper. Atlantic University Sport teams’ inability to compete with other conferences is growing. Beyond the Uteck Bowl blowout and previous similar losses on the national stage, AUS teams also went 1-3 in their interlock against Quebec this year, with the lone win coming via forfeit.

The trend is particularly troubling, but across the country, we’re seeing the field tilt more and more towards programs with tons of money.

State-of-the-art playing and training facilities, top coaching hires, large numbers of full-time assistant coaches and extensive athletic scholarships for football represent huge advantages in recruiting, retaining and developing talent, but not everyone can afford them. That contributes to the growing stratification of the game.

This disparity is problematic from several fronts.

One is interest in the regular season. It’s tough to get fans to come to likely blowouts, so it’s not surprising that Queen’s final 2012 regular-season game — a 35-7 win against the basement-dwelling Toronto Varsity Blues — drew just a listed attendance of 2,432.

Similar logic applies to broadcasts; no one wants to televise or watch a beatdown. That’s part of why there are only a handful of CIS games broadcast each week during the season; it’s tough to sell broadcasters on more coverage without better games.

Another issue is that disparity in college sports tends to self-perpetuate: do well, get more funding and donations, recruit even more talent, do even better. Thus, things may only get worse from a parity standpoint.

Without a doubt, this year’s Vanier will benefit from some of the extra publicity thanks to the 100th Grey Cup. Laval and McMaster play tonight in a rematch of last year’s stunning Vanier.

With close to 30,000 tickets already sold by Tuesday, the organizing committee decided to open up the upper bowl, and demand for those seats has looked strong thus far as well.

It’s a cheaper ticket than the Grey Cup, although the pricing of $40-$60 for the cheapest seats is higher than some preceding Vaniers. This year’s will be held in a location that’s extremely close for McMaster students and is at least theoretically driveable for the Laval contingent.

This year’s Vanier should be a great showcase for CIS football, but administrators can’t assume all is well. For one thing, the 2013 Vanier may not be paired with the Grey Cup, thanks largely to hotel issues in Regina, and some CIS types aren’t all that happy with the pairing overall despite the benefits (including expanded attendance and media coverage).

There are also CFL resentments over drafted players refusing to report to camp and going back to CIS. The CIS talent level has arguably never been better, but there are significant issues with the week-to-week product, especially around parity.

The 2012 Vanier could provide a boost for CIS football, but it alone won’t solve everything.

Andrew Bucholtz is a former Journal Sports Editor (2008-09). He covers all levels of Canadian football for Yahoo! Sports Canada.

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