It was reported late last week and in the most of innocuous of fashions that Sportsnet was going to significantly reduce their commitment to university sports just one year after unveiling their SportsnetU/University Rush line up. Gone are the weekly OUA football games and other non championship games. The spin is that Sportsnet is continuing their commitment to our unviersity athletes but only at the national level. Only the Mitchell and Uteck Bowls and the Vanier Cup will be covered in football while basketball and volleyball will get only their CIS Championships covered. A couple of things need to be clear here:
1. CIS sports is a very undervalued product. Many CIS athletes will compete beyond their university days. There are many CIS pro's playing CFL football and even the odd NFL one. Basketball players are making their mark in professional leagues overseas. Countless others dot the landscape playing pro soccer , Team Canada Rugby.. The list can go on and on
2. The CIS also draws very low numbers from a TV perspective and in TV land the number of eyeballs pays the freights. As the OUA ponied up a fair amount of cash to ensure football got on the air on The Score/Sportsnet, you can imagine advertisers are not exactly flocking to the product.
So there appears to be a disconnect between the quality of athletic competition and the viewership. Why is this? Well, as much as I hate to disappoint the plethora of loyal OUA/CIS followers, nothing has really changed since the 1990's, when I started to closely follow university sport. It has never found a consistent niche in the Canadian sports broadcasting landscape.
My own involvement in university sport started in the early 90's at the campus radio station at McMaster University. We covered mens' and women's basketball, football, even soccer and had a varsity themed show called The Midday Marauder Report created and hosted by myself and Ken Phillips, a guy who went from knowing nothing about women's basketball to being one of its most passionate advocated. Heck, he even married a basketball player! Two other guys, Paul Johnson, now working a high profile job with the City of Hamilton and Steve Yull, a Hamilton elementary school principal were the other two who were pretty passionate about university athletics. Together we traversed all Ontario and Canada for zero compensation except the odd plane flight and hotel room and covered the Marauders in Thunder Bay, Windsor, Halifax and later on I continued on and added New Brunswick and Newfoundland to the old travel docket.
Before we start firing up nostalgia music from The Wonder Years, these were good days in university sport. There was a consistent presence on TV in the form of the OUA/A Game of the Week on CHCH Channel 11 covered by a crew featuring Paul Hendrick, now with Leafs TV and Ken Welch. Later on TSN Radio's Mike Hogan and Rogers Reporter Elliote Friedman would serve as play by play broadcasters. TSN would pick up the coverage for the Vanier Cup and The Final 8 Men's Basketball, with a young Gord Miller (I'll never forget Miller alone in a Halifax bar smoking a cigarette and hoping to pick up. I do not know if he did, but I'm pretty sure I went home alone).
While the numbers were not mind blowing in terms of viewership, they were steady and thanks to CHCH. Athletes in Ontario got a fairly consistent profile and viewers gained a familiarity with the stars of the league. Then CHCH stopped covering and that consistency in coverage, that vital link to the national championships disappeared and with it went the profile of OUA Athletics. There would be sizeable gap in coverage until The Score picked up University football and some basketball with Tim Micallef and later Simon Bennett, both solid reputable broadcast voices. Adding colour commentators like Mike Morreale, a McMaster and Hamilton Tiger Cat star and legendary basketball coach Ken Murray added to the credibility.
Ok, history lesson over. What's going on now? The same issues that plagued the OUA continue today. There are a small army of passionate fans who believe that the OUA/CIS deserves a higher profile. Trust me, I get it. I was one of those guys back in the day banging the drum for them to get better coverage. Realistically to build big, you have to start small. To me the OUA is more of a regional property that could build a modest audience at the national level at national championship time. Build in your region, and get support that way would be a logical place. McMaster has it right. They get football games covered on 900CHLM, a solid local news/talk station, and on Cable 14 TV. Now that it is in HD the on-field product looks a lot better. The aforementioned campus station, 93/3 CFMU-FM also does a nice job and they get reasonable newspaper coverage. It's a shame that the local TV station CHCH is unwilling to commit the dollars to cover games on a Saturday but their mandate has drastically changed and live sports are not a part of it.
That said the OUA could do themselves a lot of favours by appealing to the TSN's and Sportsnet's to come out and cover their athletes and teams and do stories on them. Carleton men's basketball humbled an NCAA school by 32 points and it barely caused a ripple. The Canadian women's rugby team that just lost in the final to England was filled with CIS athletes. Were there stories done on them? If you are not going to get live coverage then make sure your athletes and programs are going to be featured. Make sure that you elbow your way into those Sportsnet Connected, TSN Sports Centre highlight shows.
The OUA is also going to pump their streaming service OUA.TV as a means to cover events live, which is great. That said they had better make sure that the technical difficulties are minimal and the on-air crew are taking their job seriously. It is not easy covering live sports as an on-air personality. It takes time and repetition to stay on top of the game. Putting forth an amateur production will turn off even the most die hard of viewers. Make sure you are getting veteran talent to oversee these productions to make sure that they are getting communicated in the most effective and most commercial way. This admittedly will take time so try and be patient. While I agree that streaming is going to be the way he view sports, a lot of people still like their traditional TV. Building an audience will not happen overnight.
Informing your target audience is key as well. The OUA did a fairly significant realignment of their basketball divisions and playoff format for the upcoming year. Did you know? I did, but it was not publicized. Little things like that will draw a little attention to your product. Make more of a big deal of it and make sure that it is explained clearly. The release I saw about the division change was not really crystal clear in terms of where each team was playing. The AHL (American Hockey League) did a very good job of presenting their realignment in clear chart form with each teams logo highlighted. It was released across multiple platforms. That simple thing did a lot to highlight the changes that were forthcoming.
If you do get TV coverage, make sure your venue looks as TV friendly as possible. Nothing turns off a viewer like patchy turf, empty stands and substandard lighting. I know these things take resources, but work hard to create a TV friendly product. Make sure the TV crew has ample knowledge and then some. I've gone to venues and received a great statistics package. Other venues only give you the game day program. The universities SID should be working hard and bending over backwards to accommodate media. Also, present TV friendly games and tournaments. Now that we are not getting our clock cleaned by NCAA competition in basketball, how about covering those games either live or getting a reporter out there to cover the team. Change the playoff format to accommodate TV. Do it in a tournament style regional fashion over a weekend. I know these are not exactly out of the box ideas, but they could be workable.
The one thing the OUA and CIS cannot control is the dominance that some teams have in their respective sports. Its no fun watching blowouts whether it is in hockey, basketball or soccer. Right now a lot of Carleton men's basketball games, Windsor women's basketball games and Laval football games are over before the game is half over. 40 to 50 point differentials are no fun to broadcast . Teams will try and rise up and match the dominant program, but that too will take time. Kind of tough to build that audience you so crave if your team is kicking the other teams rear end or you support the team taking the beating.
On the whole there is a market out there for university sport, but it is not on the same level of junior hockey in terms of popularity. It's a niche market that needs to grow at the regional level before it truly things national.
Steve covered varsity sports for a number of years, and managed to hit Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and most Ontario Universities. There is no truth to the rumour that bar revenue went up significantly when he was in these places. That is purely coincidental.