Say goodbye to the CIS.
Canadian Interuniversity Sport is no more, as the league has rebranded to U Sports following a press conference on Oct. 20, 2016.
Under new CEO Graham Brown, the rebrand aims to revive what is a stale product.
“We’ve been working really hard to get in front of corporate Canada,” Brown said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “They’re passionate about university sport. We just have to convince them that we’re a good opportunity for marketing [and] for promotion.”
A lack of funding has plagued Canadian university sports for years, and it should not be a surprise to see dollars and cents as the reason for the change. Currently, U Sports has around a budget of approximately $3.25 million, according to recent statements from Brown. He wants to push that budget to nearly $10 million in three years.
The rebrand is supposed to reengage corporate sponsors, though how that happens is not clear. U Sports officials say that a governance structure overhaul should allow the organization to bring in more sponsorships with less restrictions.
The larger questions revolve around the return of investment for corporate sponsors. Undergrads are a covetable marketing demographic, but generally speaking student engagement with university athletics is weak, and this has kept sponsors and broadcasters away.
Sportsnet dropped weekly Ontario University Athletics football coverage in 2014, citing high production costs and low viewership numbers. In that same year, Sportsnet created “Super Championship Weekend.” The event featured men’s and women’s basketball and hockey championships broadcasted nation-wide.
The broadcaster was generally happy with the event, as per the debrief found in the 2015 CIS Annual General Meeting report, but said “atmosphere and general attendance need to be addressed.” Do sponsors want to be supporting events that do not have good attendance? Given the current state of university athletics in Canada, the answer is “no.”
Weekly university football returned in 2016, with Sportsnet partnering with City TV to broadcast games. The first game was full of potential: Queen’s hosted Western, one of the oldest rivalries in the country, and Queen’s was opening their new stadium. Despite this, the game had lots of empty seats. The event did not draw well on television either, as only 18,000 tuned in to watch. That number is lower than the 28,000 the OUA was getting before Rogers nixed the broadcast deal.
Sportsnet is not the only media outlet to take a step back from university athletics coverage. Due to shrinking budgets, mainstream media cannot allocate resources to a product so niche. The Hamilton Spectator used to have significantly more McMaster Marauders coverage, but the Sports department has shrunk in recent years and university coverage is few and far between.
Based on viewership numbers, attendance and media coverage, leadership is right: the CIS brand was stale and something needed to change. The press conference and media release were full of platitudes and light on details for how this happens. It has not been a smooth launch, either.
Brown touted U Sports’ ability to be relevant in the digital landscape. They launched usports.ca after the announcement, but the main website for all information is still going to be CIS-SIC.ca until early 2017. Why would you rebrand as something more adaptable to the digital landscape, but still point people to a website littered with your old brand? It is a confusing decision.
The name change is a positive step. However, without a real strategy for engaging students and corporate sponsors, the rebrand will be a costly and ineffective endeavor. With the rollout of U Sports, the organization could have laid out the path for the future and given people a reason to believe in the change.
Instead, they spoke in generalities and left people with more questions than answers. There is reason to believe in Brown because of his experience growing Rugby Canada into a multi-million dollar organization, but if you feel skeptical, you are not alone.