A new television deal that will guarantee expanded coverage for marquee national championship events over the next six years is a great step to raising the profile of university sports in Canada, say those who are involved in running intercollegiate athletics.
But unless postsecondary institutions across Canada start putting more effort into better promoting their teams and athletes in their own markets, university administrators are worried any gains from the national TV with all-sports cable giant Sportsnet will eventually be lost.
That will be a key message to be delivered when members of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the governing body that oversees intercollegiate athletics in this country, gather in Toronto for their annual general meeting, which begins Monday.
"I think the new broadcasting deal is fantastic for the CIS," said Jennifer Brenning, a CIS board member and the athletic director at Carleton University in Ottawa. "But it can't be successful on its own. We have to do a much better job in promoting university sports in our local markets, getting bums in the seats within our own gyms and our fields and our stadiums.
"We have to do our part to build this and grow our audience so that when it gets to the national final, people want to watch it."
Pierre Lafontaine, the new chief executive officer of the CIS, said Canadian universities need to be more active in the way they go about promoting their product.
He cited the recently renovated Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto into a gleaming new athletic centre for Ryerson University as a prime example of the kind of forward thinking that has to take place.
"We have to be part of the solution," Lafontaine said. "We can't keep doing the same thing at the CIS if we want to get better."
The message appears to be getting through.
Last week, the University of Windsor announced it was entering into a strategic partnership with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. that will provide the institution with substantial promotional opportunities in concert with the sport conglomerate's professional hockey, basketball and soccer teams.
As part of the three-year deal, MLSE will provide internship opportunities to the school's undergraduate and graduate students. The athletic department will be able to use the logos of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC and Toronto Marlies to recruit potential student athletes to their campus.
"This gives the University of Windsor and the Lancers presence at the top sports location in Canada," U of W assistant vice-president Dave Bussiere said.
In May, CIS and Sportsnet announced a new six-year broadcasting agreement that will provide expanded national coverage of both men's and women's CIS sport.
Richard Peddie, a CIS board member at large who was the former president and chief executive officer at MLSE, helped broker the deal.
The coverage will begin in the fall, headlined by the coveted Vanier Cup national football championship, which, for the past four years, has been the property of rival TSN.
The schedule will also include a healthy dose of women's national championships, including hockey and basketball.
In total, Sportsnet will broadcast 13 events over the course of the 2013-14 collegiate calendar, two more than the just-concluded CIS season.
In the second year of the deal, more women's events could be added if the ratings from the previous year meet set targets. By the time the final year of the partnership rolls around in 2018-19, as many as 27 CIS events could air on Sportsnet.
"University sports we feel are underrepresented in Canada and CIS properties were scattered across three different networks and didn't get the promotion or the coverage that I think they deserve," said Navaid Mansuri, vice-president of sports programming for Sportsnet.
While neither CIS or Sportsnet would divulge financial details of the broadcasting pact, it is believed the university organization will receive modest rights fees of less than $100,000 in the first year of the deal.
That value will increase by the third year, when the CIS will no longer have to pick up any of the production costs associated with the broadcasts.
That is small potatoes when compared to the big business that university sports is in the United States, where the National Collegiate Athletic Association is being paid $10.8-billion (U.S) by CBS-Turner just for the broadcast rights of their men's basketball tournament. But it is a start.
Lafontaine said in order to ramp up interest in university sports in Canada the CIS needs to do a better job at convincing young athletes to remain at home and attend Canadian universities rather than pursue their athletic and academic endeavours at NCAA schools.
Making changes to the somewhat-convoluted scholarship guidelines that are currently in place in Canada might be one place to start, he said, adding he is also thinking of pursuing what he calls a "super weekend" of national championships covering a wide range of sports that could become part of the CIS schedule.
Editor's Note: Inaccurate information pertaining to the dollar value and the network television contract of the NCAA appeared in the original print version and an earlier online version of this story. The error has now been corrected.