by Wayne Kondro (special to CIS)
It is a sad reality that in this so-called golden age of Canadian basketball that so many young players hightail south of the border the moment they're offered a scholarship, whether it's because it's the only way they can afford a post-secondary education or because they somehow perceive it as proof of superiority of skills and a direct ticket to professional riches.
Never mind that Canadian hoops has come so far in recent decades that the level of play in Canadian Interuniversity Sport is actually higher than in a lot of NCAA institutions, while the style of play is more entertaining. Never mind that most who venture south end up deep in the rotation and playing minor minutes, even in their junior and senior years, so the development of their basketball skills is essentially arrested. And never mind that they often attend mediocre institutions that give them a degree that ultimately proves worthless upon their return to Canada. Oft-times, they must even take additional studies just so that they can start some sort of career.
Certainly, for a very gifted few –the Steve Nash's of decades past, or the Andrew Wiggins', Tristan Thompson's, Kelly Olynyk's and Jamal Murray's of the present-- playing basketball at the upper NCAA echelon has been, and can be, a tremendous boon for a professional career.
But the fact is, there are very few NBA entry spots and for the majority of student-athletes, venturing south eventually proves a career liability. Yet, caught up in the excitement, or the financial necessity, of a scholarship offer and seemingly unaware that there is a value to being educated in the environment in which they ultimately pursue a career, they bolt for the lustre of American hoops.
So the questions then become: How do you keep them in Canada? How do you elevate the stature and profile of the game in Canada so that they realize that the better choice is actually to attend a Canadian institution, which, because of the way we have structured and regulated our post-secondary system, at least guarantees an education at a certain level of quality, and which, increasingly, can serve as an avenue by which a talented few can still develop their basketball skills to the point where they can be paid to play in Europe, Australia, South America or any other number of places?
What do coaches think is needed for Canadian hoops to achieve that objective, and further elevate the level of play and the status of the game? What, simply put, is their wish list for CIS hoops?
Not surprisingly, most believe thatreform must start with full scholarships, and significantly bolstered exposure.
"Number one would be scholarships," says uOttawa men's coach James Derouin. "Student-athletes put in an enormous amount of time and I think they dedicate themselves to a level that CISathletes are probably the purest athletes that are out there. They don't play for a full scholarship. They don't play for an NBA contract. They play because they love to play basketball. I love that about the CIS. However, I do think we're asking too much, considering that the commitment level has increased, while the scholarships have not. We owe it to our athletes and I think that we need it to help draw in the talent, to keep it here in Canada. And I think that we need to catch up. Basketball is at its peak inCanada right now. CIS has a golden opportunity to take advantage of this."
"TV is number two," Derouin adds. "I'd like to see these athletes get the same recognition that we give to our world junior hockey players. In my mind, they're in that same category. This is our national league. These are 99% Canadian-born student-athletes. ... Our athletes deserve the exposure; it's a great product. I'm just waiting for the day that the powers that be allow it to generate some legs; that they don't look at the numbers from one game and decide that it's not going to work. Give it some promotion throughout the season, multiple games, building upan audience, building awareness and then give it a full judgment. Those two things would also help contribute in a major way to keeping our athletes here in Canada. We got great leagues, great schools, great academics, great coaches, great teams. I think we need to step up our game in those two areas.It's staggering to me how hard these kids work and yet, get virtually no recognition."
Those are refrains that repeatedly arise when coaches are asked what's needed to redress the seemingly perpetual state of listlessness that surrounds CIS hoops.
"We're not just glorified intramural programs," says Concordia women's coach Tenicha Gittens. "These kids sacrifice so much and I just feel like we don't give enough back to them. Just the scholarships alone. They don't even cover books. ... We need to do better."
There also needs to be a "consistent set of rules" for athletic financial awards across Canada, argues Carleton women's coach Taffe Charles. "We are penalized in the OUA with only being able to offer $4500 for tuition. Also the 80%/65% rule [80% average to receive an AFA in first year and then 65% in university studies for the scholarship to continue] is also unfair to Ontario. [It] should be the same. Explaining to people why the inequality exists makes our product look bad."
In tandem with full scholarships, there's a need to bolster program funding, several coaches argue.
"The expectations of a CIS coach far outweigh the resources," says Windsor men's coach Chris Oliver. "The rise of Canadian basketball has been outstanding but too often CIS basketball coaches are still operating with the same resources or less than we had 10 years ago."
"One thing I would like to see is universities across the CIS investing in athletics like they matter, not doing 'just enough'," says Cape Breton women's coach Fabian McKenzie.
Basketball programs need to be provided full funding, to cover all operating costs, and should be able to offer full scholarships, including things like accommodation, argues Calgary women's coach Damian Jennings. "Right now there is too much fund-raising required of the head coaches of CIS programs. When we are fund-raising, we are not coaching, so the student-athletes miss out. And due to our current rules around scholarships, we are struggling to keep some of the best talent in Canada – it is all paid for in the USA."
"Having just finished my first year as a CIS head coach, I find myself exhausted and run-down," says UBC Okanagan women's coach Claire Meadows. "I think the need for each institution to have a full-time assistant is crucial in terms of alleviating some responsibilities. It is an endless job and most coaches are overworked and underpaid."
"We have people working on and with our teams that are putting in way more time and passion than they are getting reciprocated with," says Waterloo women's coach Tyler Slipp. "It is all of our jobs as head coaches to build the fundraising side at our schools up as much as we can, but that is the area I feel the most guilty about. More money to recruit better players, hire better assistants, you can expect more out of, more exhibition travel, better events, etc. would be great with a magic wand, but at the end of the day, it's our job to do it and raise the level of the game."
Other coaches, including Queen's women coach Dave Wilson, join Derouin in calling for more television exposure."But there's probably a cart and horse issue here," he notes. "Nobody wants to film the games if the stands are not packed. Yet sometimes the exposure creates the excitement. I'd love to see the exposure of the women's game increased. So many people come to me after coming to a game for the first time and say: 'I had no idea it was like that.' I don't know if they thought it was like junior high school, or whether they thought it was like basketball 20 years ago."
Yet, the issue of media coverage (both broadcast and print) is tricky and fraught with all manner ofoften-harebrained regulation. It once was the case that networks received broadcast licenses from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission that included specific conditions that they fill at least 27% of their airspace with university and amateur sports. Those conditions were not always met and invariably, the CRTC did nothing to penalize miscreants but at least there was some compulsion for networks to include such coverage.
Over the past decade, that has changed as a result of CRTC regulatory responses to demands from media giants Bell Canada and Rogers regarding their respective specialty sports channels, TSN and Sportsnet. The CRTC essentially abandoned what were calledits"genre exclusivity" restrictions and then lifted requirements for such channels to carry amateur sports as a condition of license.
That essentially freed up the media giants to shift into full professional sports mode, buying teams like the Toronto Raptors, Blue Jays, Maple Leafs and TorontoFC, to fill most of the available air-time, while packing the remainder with licensed acquisitions of foreign properties, such as European soccer, Australian rules football, cricket, darts, poker, etc., primarily because it's cheaper than producing local events. (As an aside, the CRTC says the new regime allows carriers to include networks like ESPN in their offerings but, of course, neither the Bells, Rogers, Shaws nor Viacoms of the world have done so. Not because they're protecting their vested interests, they say. Rather, they argue, there isn't consumer demand for including the ESPN family of channels in their satellite or cable packages).At any rate, the upshot is that covering amateur sport is no longer even expected, let alone required, of the private communications giants.
Meanwhile, the nation's public broadcaster, CBC, for which taxpayers fork out over $1 billion annually, has been shrinking its sports coverage, and what's left operates in what can only be called elitist-sports mode, with the network devoting much of its amateur sports budget to things like equestrian show-jumping and downhill skiing, doubtless because producers and reporters prefer swanning around in luxury resorts than hanging around in dimly-lit gyms. Decades have passed since CBC covered something as populist as basketball, though hundredsof thousands of Canadians play the game and 94 university teams battle on the hardcourt. And while an estimated 12 million Canadians are involved in amateur sports in some fashion (whether as participants, coaches, administrators or referees), according to the sports gurus at CBC, they're all primarily interested in watching wealthy people leap fences while seated on a horse.
In much the same vein, the shrinking print industryhas been gutting newsrooms to the point where coverage of university basketball and other community or amateur sports have become a rarity rather than the norm, in part because newspapers believe that greater value automatically accrues when a sport is played at the professional level and in part because it's cheaper to fill the pages with wire copy about professional sports than it is to pay reporters to cover local beats like university sports. And after reducing community coverage, corporate bigwigs then somehow wonder why people cancel their subscriptions.
In short, university basketball, and all other amateur sports in Canada (except, of course, for the Olympics, for two weeks every two years) are rapidly disappearing from the dial, or being pushed off the pages of newspapers.
Those are, of course, trends that are not exclusive to Canada, which is why there is such growth in what's called "brand journalism" in the US, in which universities and national sports organizations are essentially hiring reporters to generate content for their websites, and why some athletic conferences, like the Big Ten and the SEC, have created their own television networks.
Whether it is feasible to follow suit in Canada is unclear because no one has any idea if a CIS network could be financed solely through advertising and subscriptions sales, and nothing now compels cable or satellite companies to include such a channel in their consumer packages (thereby, guaranteeing revenues forthenetwork), though the federal Liberal government recently announced that it is reviewing Canadian content rules and regulations, ostensibly with an eye toward adopting measures that promote the creation of Canadian content.
Those are, of course, considerations that are part and parcel of the sort of wide-ranging marketing strategies that the NCAA, other athletic associations and athletic conferences are implementing in the US.
Such strategies, though, are essentially unexplored in Canada, which leaves several coaches saying that CIS hoops marketing is lost in the dark ages.
"The business of sport is not something we do well in Canada," notes Manitoba men's coach Kirby Schepp. "Marketing and promotion" have to be at "the top of the discussion."
"Content marketing is lacking across the board in the CIS," says Oliver. "We should not be relying on traditional media" but rather, social media and other means of communication with fans."
"We have a very good product in the CIS, but people don't know about it until they have a connection to it. We need to build the connections across the country so we gain more support and a better following," says York women's coach Erin McAleenan.
It's a view shared by many others, including Ryerson women's coach Carly Clarke, Acadia men's coach Len Harvey, Nipissing men's coach Chris Cheng, Toronto men's coach John Campbell, Saskatchewan women's coach Lisa Thomaidis, as well as departing MacEwan women's coach Dave Oldham.
Several, though, note that it raises classic chicken-and-egg questions: Does increased exposure generateinterest? Or do you need to demonstrate there is interest before receiving increased exposure?
"If I could change one thing, it would be figuring out how to garner the support of the student body at the university level," says Oldham. "It is such a culture and great part of attending school in the USA for so many people (athletes and student body). I am not sure why that hasn't caught on here."
Marketing and fan support are a tricky issue, Thomaidis notes. "It's good in some areas. But to turn on the TV and see the support that March madness has in the States, and yet the product that we're putting on the floor, and how good it is, and how it's improving and how competitive it is, I wish there was more fan support."
There probably isn't a "magic bullet,"says Mount Royal women's coach Nathan McKibbon. "But we need to find a collective vision and mission for women's basketball. It needs to be ambitious and it must be a shared vision between schools, administration, coaches and players. For me, that vision is developing world-class training opportunities and a well-balanced student-athlete experience for the young women that choose to attend CIS schools. The more we look at ourselves as second-class options for top athletes in Canada and internationally, the longer people will look at us the same way."
Gittens and others like MacEwan men's coach Eric Magdanz argue improvements also need to be made at the individual university level.
"If we want more fans, investments, sponsorships, TV deals, etc. etc., we have to show them what we have to offer," says Gittens. "We have a lot of players and coaches that have done some amazing things in their careers but we don't always know who they are. I do however think it starts within the institution, the athletics department. If your athletics department doesn't put the effort into marketing your program and players, therein lies part of the problem."
"My biggest improvement would be production value and marketing," says Magdanz. "By production value, I mean putting more into the game than just an announcer and a kid's game at half time. We held the NBA all-star event at one of our home games this year and we packed the house. During the game they had promotions and music and events. The place was buzzing. We have a great product on the floor but at the end of the day people can watch great basketball on their couch every Saturday without making an effort. We need our games to be more than just basketball. I have zero interest in hockey but just went to an Oilers game because it's not just about hockey.At the end of the game, I could appreciate the speed and skill of the athletes but I was always engaged in the product whether it be trying to catch T-shirts or watching the player introductions or just being a part of the atmosphere that they created for the fans. Some of the games we play right now are depressing with large gyms being empty."
As part of that broader effort to raise the stature of the game in Canada, others, like retiring Wilfrid Laurier men's coach Peter Campbell, say there may be a need for substantive restructuring of conferences and schedules, while still others, such as McMaster men's coach Amos Connolly, say it may necessitate revisions to the format of national championships, so that it follows the American lead by involving more teams over a longer period of time than just one weekend, so as to generate more fan interest. "Right now, we've unintentionally alienated some fans simply because not enough teams from their area get into the tournament."
Campbell also identifies improved officiating as a major priority, particularly to redress "our inability to control who refs and their inability to get better."
It's a common refrain. In Atlantic Canada, for example, there's a need for a single officiating panel, rather than one for each province, says Acadia men's coach Kevin Duffie. "I feel like therefereeing is behind a little bit where the game's going right now. There's a lot of challenges with that. I don't think it's an easy job and it's hard to get good, young talented referees. But that's a piece of the game that has to catch up."
"In the OUA, I would like the officials to be governed by the OUA and not themselves," says Laurentian women's coach Jason Hurley. "I don't think that if I make a complaint about one of the officiating crew, that it matters. It's just one of their buddies."
"At the end of the day, refs are not monitored and assessed to the level that I think they should be," says Meadows. "They are a significant part of any competition and I believe that we need more qualified refs to improve the overall quality of our play."
"I believe the officials haven't kept up with the game," says UPEI women's coach Greg Gould. "It bothers mewhen the so-called best officials always do the men's games."
Among other identified needs is for more input by coaches into CIS policies and strategies. As the departing Campbell notes: "The CIS needs to listen to coaches and really support their priorities."