The 2016 Vanier Cup was supposed to be Graham Brown's coming-out party, the opportunity for the slick and ambitious new U Sports chief executive officer to cement his vision of what Canadian university sports could aspire to. Instead – despite an entertaining game in which perennial powerhouse Laval upended the University of Calgary 31-26 with a late touchdown – the event was an unmitigated disaster at the gate.
According to U Sports's internal figures, only 7,115 people bought tickets for the game between two out-of-province foes at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field – and there were considerably fewer sitting in the stands, by most accounts. It was the poorest-attended Canadian university football championship in the 50 years that it has been a non-invitational event.
The previous low was 8,184 in 1997 in Toronto, at what was then known as the SkyDome, when the University of British Columbia dismantled the Ottawa Gee-Gees.
"I think, originally, the theory was to try to make it sort of a destination game, an event that can take place wherever, where people will come to it, enjoy a great sporting event and have lots of fun with all the festivities around it – like the Grey Cup or Super Bowl for example," said Glen Grunwald, the athletic director at Hamilton's McMaster University who was the chairman of the 2016 Vanier Cup.
"Obviously, that didn't happen."
U Sports, formerly Canadian Interuniversity Sport, has long wrestled with how to market its showcase event. Over the years the game has featured many of the country's best-known homegrown football stars, including Neil Lumsden, Rocky DiPietro, Larry Uteck, Tyrone Williams and Eric Lapointe. And now U Sports is hoping it can rekindle a business relationship with an old flame, the CFL, to help the Vanier Cup grow.
"It just makes sense for us right now, from a business standpoint, to try to realign the Vanier Cup back with the Grey Cup and hold both games on the same weekend," Brown said in a recent interview from U Sports headquarters in Richmond Hill, Ont.
A spokesman for the CFL said that there have been no "formal" talks on this likelihood. "As always, we are ready to hear any suggestions or proposals if there are any," the league said in an e-mail.
In hindsight, Brown says, it was a rash decision for Canadian university's national sports-governing body to try to go it alone with what is considered the crown jewel of the organization's championship brands.
"It was a mistake doing it on the short term," said Brown, who has been heading U Sports since September, 2015. "But in the long term it would have made sense. I did it probably a little bit prematurely and as a result it kind of backfired."
The 2017 Vanier Cup is Nov. 25, also at Tim Hortons Field, which will conclude a two-year agreement between U Sports and the City of Hamilton. This year's Grey Cup is Nov. 26 in Ottawa.
Where next year's Vanier Cup will go is anybody's guess – it could even return to Hamilton if this year's game is well supported. The Grey Cup will be in Edmonton, which has never held a Vanier Cup.
Despite the promotional advantage of having the Vanier Cup in the same venue for the second year in a row, there are no guarantees when it comes to the fickle nature of Canadian university sports fans.
As of this week about 5,000 tickets had been sold, compared with 1,100 at the same time last year. And that was before the league announced that popular Hamilton-based rock group The Trews would be headlining the halftime show.
But whether that upward trend continues will have a lot to do with the luck of the draw.
The marketing challenge – and the reason why an association with the CFL makes strong business sense – is trying to sell tickets to a university event for which the two finalists are not determined until a week before the championship.
The involvement of a local team would help the overall success of the game. For this year's Vanier, the inclusion of London's Western University Mustangs or – even better – Hamilton's own Marauders, who are both in the playoffs this weekend, would be a huge boost.
"There really is only one event in Canada that has the cachet to market itself when you don't know who the teams will be, and that's the CFL, the Grey Cup," Brown said. "Even then you know it's going to be two of nine teams, but you still have a better chance than us, with 27.
"However, the fact of the matter is, there doesn't seem to be the interest in the Vanier Cup … from a geographical region outside of 75 kilometres of a game. It's not an event like the Grey Cup, where you have people flying in from all over."
Pairing the Grey Cup with the Vanier Cup has been done before and the results were favourable.
In 2011, when the game was in B.C. Place in Vancouver on the Grey Cup weekend, a healthy crowd of 24,935 saw McMaster topple Laval 41-38 in an overtime thriller many consider the greatest in the history of the event.
When Laval extracted its revenge in a rematch between the two schools at Rogers Centre, when the Grey Cup shifted to Toronto in 2012, the game was witnessed by a Vanier Cup record gathering of close to 37,100.
And in 2014, when U Sports ran the game in conjunction with the CFL's Alouettes in Montreal, close to 23,000 were at Molson Stadium to see the University of Montreal hold off McMaster 20-19.
On other occasions U Sports has sold the rights to stage the Vanier Cup to individual schools, with varying degrees of success.
Four times since 2009 that privilege has gone to Laval, which made sense given the strength of the Quebec City football program that is a serious contender every year to be in the game, thereby guaranteeing a robust home crowd.
Laval has won the title a record nine times in the 10 trips it's made to the Vanier Cup since 1999. On the two occasions Laval has played the title game on its home field at Telus Stadium the crowds ranged from 16,200 to 18,500.
Only the 2015 Vanier Cup, played at Laval between UBC and Montreal, was a bit of a disappointment, with fewer than 13,000 on hand.
Despite the low attendance at the 2016 Vanier Cup, Brown said he is not prepared to write off Hamilton. Brown said the city did all it could to support the venture, including the free use of the 24,000-seat stadium.
He credited the continuing strong financial support of Arcelor Mittal Dofasco, the steel and mining conglomerate that helped account for a sizable portion of the $400,000 of sponsorships, for helping the Vanier Cup turn a $75,000 profit despite the meagre turnout.
"This is kind of a big year for them [U Sports], having a whole year to promote it in Hamilton and to build on what happened last year," said Greg Marshall, the football coach at Western. "This is our showpiece game and if we're going to have our national championship, regardless of what teams are in there, it's got to be well attended."
Pairing the Grey Cup with the Vanier does have drawbacks for the U Sports event.
There is the concern that the university game gets overshadowed by the hustle and bustle that surrounds the week-long CFL festivity.
Also, when played in conjunction with the Grey Cup, the only night available for the university game is on the Friday night. The Grey Cup is always played on Sunday and the league is adamant that it needs Saturday to prepare the stadium for the big game.
"Because the Grey Cup is so big and so sophisticated with the turnaround of the stadium – all those stages they have to build and the TSN television booth, they can't do it in one day," Brown explained. "So we have to get in [on the Friday] and play our game and they'll start to take over."
That tight turnaround is so problematic from a marketing perspective that in games past, when the Vanier Cup has piggybacked onto the Grey Cup, there has not been enough time to paint the U Sports logo at midfield.
The Vanier Cup has been played with the Grey Cup logo front and centre for the spectators and for a national TV audience. Those are not good optics for a university event trying to build its brand.
"The other part to that [the logo] costs $7,000 to put on," Brown said. "So you've got to have the resources to be able to do it. But it's worth it. There's about 30 per cent of a football game that has the centre of the field as a visual, so you want your logo on there."