As Canadian university sports undergo a continued facelift, there is one area that fans who follow the league have questions about: the basketball Final 8 tournament.
The format of the men’s basketball tournament has largely stayed the same since 1987. The men’s Final 8 was hosted in Halifax, N.S. for 24 years while the women’s has moved around. The tournament field is made up of two teams from Ontario University Athletics, two from Canada West, one from the Quebec conference, one from Atlantic University Sport, the host and a wildcard team. There was a three-year period where the men’s tournament expanded to 10 teams, but the league balked on that in 2008.
National interest in the tournaments has waned in recent years. The 2016 men’s national championship drew 9,000 viewers on Sportsnet 360.
McMaster’s men’s basketball coach Amos Connolly has an idea for driving up interest: expanding the field to a 16-team tournament.
“I don’t think the Final 8 has the same bounce it used to have. When I look at this year, I think ‘what generated interest, what generated talk?’ It was the selection of the wildcard,” said Connolly. “If you broaden to 16 teams, now you have a conversation that is bigger than just one wildcard.”
This year’s controversy was about Brock’s exclusion from the Final 8 tournament despite finishing third in the OUA playoffs and finishing fourth in the final U Sports top ten of the year.
It’s a bold idea for a league that tends to play it close to the vest. The expansion could engage more fans, create narratives around programs and athletes, and eventually bring in more revenue for a league that desperately needs it, though it comes with a cost.
The tournament’s current format gifts berths to teams that rarely compete for the championship at the expense of true contenders. Carleton University has won 13 of the past 15 national championships and Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec won their first quarterfinal since 2005 this past season. The end result is a tournament lacking in intrigue because the league has valued countrywide representation over putting the best teams in the tournament.
There are a number of immediate questions that skeptics would have, including who is in the tournament, how much school would student-athletes miss and if it makes any sense to expand a tournament that is struggling to get traction.
For starters, Connolly envisions the tournament being made up of the two Canada West finalists, two OUA finalists, the RSEQ champion, AUS champion and the host. The remaining eight positions would be filled by wildcards.
Increasing the number of wildcards would create more drama for every game, both in conference and the preseason and holiday tournaments. All games would count towards the overall team score at the end of the season used to qualify for the national tournament.
Doubling the overall number of teams in the tournament is an extreme step because it means 16 of 47 teams would qualify. Some could argue it dilutes the accomplishment of making it to nationals. Considering the minimal visibility and flawed tournament set up, the real accomplishment of making the Final 8 is hard to define.
Part of the reason for 16 teams is simplicity. Connolly argues that the U Sports tournament should follow the National Collegiate Athletic Association bracket format because that is what basketball fans are used to. Any kind of play-in games would go unnoticed, and until the tournament gets to eight teams, people would not pay attention.
A move to 16 teams would mean the tournament would have to run longer than the current set up. To accommodate the increased number of games, teams could play four games in six days and students would miss a week of school. Conference tournaments would have to adjust their schedules. The national tournament could start on a Monday and run through to Sunday. One bracket would play Monday and Wednesday, and the other would play Tuesday and Thursday. All teams would have Friday off. Put the semi-finals on Saturday and final on Sunday, you’ve got yourself a tournament.
Connolly pictures the national tournament taking place in one city.
“I don’t think we’re at the regional tournament stage yet, where you have four teams [in one location], four teams in another. I don’t think an [eventual] Final Four would generate enough interest. And I think you run it in Halifax or you run it at Ryerson,” said Connolly.
Halifax has hosted the tournament for the majority of its existence, while Ryerson has a new venue in a city obsessed with the game.
Missing a week of school is significant but there are more points to consider. Teams that have to fly across the country leave on a Tuesday for national tournaments anyways. Professors are increasingly making lectures via podcast and the rise of Facebook groups and chats for classes has made it easier to get notes. Another lofty goal would be putting the tournament over reading week. This would allow students to travel to the tournament and eliminate any academic concerns.
One of the biggest obstacles would be the increased financial investment it would require. More games means more flights and hotels for already-strained athletic departments with only the promise of one meaningful game. Plus, there would be the additional costs of referees, floor time, live streams and a variety of other costs. Some would argue that the decrease in interest would justify a decrease in tournament size. In U Sports, every cent matters.
Right now, there aren’t any cents coming in. For Connolly, the goal is not to create some multimillion-dollar property like the NCAA has, but to create a national tournament that actually means something to Canadians and those paying for teams to compete in it. Sure, it is a lofty goal, but ambition is U Sports desperately needs.