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The Globe and Mail

U Sports hopes delayed rebrand is a winner at the Vanier Cup

When the Laval Rouge et Or and the Calgary Dinos take to Tim Hortons Field on Saturday for the Vanier Cup, most eyes won't be on the players and coaches.

Instead, all eyes will be on U Sports, the rebranded Canadian Interuniversity Sport, and governing body of Canadian university athletics.

The rebrand was presented mid-October in Toronto, halfway through the fall sports season. The launch was planned for September, but because of timeline issues and the success of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, it was delayed.

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And with the Vanier Cup being the pinnacle of Canadian university sports, this is considered the highly anticipated launch the organization has been waiting for.

"We launched in October, but we're really using the Vanier Cup and the football to [push the brand]," said Graham Brown, chief executive officer of U Sports. "There's no question the eyeballs that we're going to get … it's going to be really important that we profile the new brand."

The October announcement meant most fall sports had their national championships marketed as CIS-SIC instead of U Sports. Teams that won the national championships were awarded banners with CIS-SIC on them to avoid confusing the student-athletes.

"Strategically, we needed them to get on with their business. We didn't want to impact the student-athletes at all. So if their marketing was CIS-SIC, then their championship was branded that and their banner reflected that," Brown said. "All of the bowl games were U Sports, all of the branding was U Sports and the Vanier will be no different."

As of Wednesday afternoon, about 7,800 tickets were sold for Saturday's championship game. The initial attendance goal for U Sports was 16,000. The capacity of Tim Hortons Field is about 24,000.

With the all-Canadian banquet Thursday evening, media conferences and events planned as lead-up to the game, Brown is optimistic the number will grow before the 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday.

U Sports is also working with the City of Hamilton, Hamilton schools and football organizations to increase the excitement around the Vanier Cup, which will be played in Steeltown for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

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"There's certainly a buzz around the Canadian university football community. We've got two really good teams and two deserving teams to be [in the final]. And I think there's a buzz around the Vanier Cup playing at Tim Hortons Field and we hope that translates to, obviously, ticket sales," Brown said.

As well, U Sports and the Calgary Dinos are working with the Calgary Stampeders, who will be playing in Toronto for the Grey Cup on Sunday, to try to bring more fans down the QEW for some extra football. But Wayne Harris, head coach of the Dinos, isn't worried about how many fans will be there.

"We play in McMahon Stadium and we don't draw huge crowds into McMahon. We're used to playing in CFL-sized stadium that has a smaller crowd than you would get at a CFL game or that you would get at Laval University," he said.

"It would be nice if some of [the Stampeders fans] could find their way down [to Hamilton], and watch the game and throw their support behind us, but we don't really have an expectation on that. We don't really focus on the fan base as much as we do performing to the best of our abilities."

During the 2016 regular season, Laval led the country with an average home attendance of 11,684. According to Brown, the Laval organization hopes to send about 15 buses of fans, and that doesn't include family and friends who will make the drive from Quebec City.

This year, Sportsnet partnered with U Sports to put the national semi-finals, the Mitchell Bowl and the Uteck Bowl, on television along with the national final. The Mitchell Bowl generated an audience of 68,800, while the Uteck Bowl had 45,200 viewers.

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Saturday's Vanier Cup will feature two powerhouses in the Canadian circuit. The Dinos have won four Vanier Cups since 1964, last appearing in the final in 2013 against the same Rouge et Or, who won that meeting. Laval, which has not been back to the national championship since 2013, has won nine titles in its 20-year history.

If this is the "official" launch of U Sports and the successful attempt to catch the Canadian public's attention, the Vanier Cup will need to be a top showcase for the new world of Canadian university sports.

"I truly believe there is an appetite for Canadian university sport," Brown said. "But we also have to do a good job in that the games we put on [TV] need to be full, they need to be exciting, the game needs to be competitive. And we have to have that. We have that."

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