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Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s new CEO Graham Brown speaks to the Queen’s University men’s basketball team.

Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

At first, Graham Brown wasn't remotely interested in taking over Canadian university sports.

When the offer was presented, he was in a comfortable job as chief executive of Rugby Canada, an organization that flourished during his 13 years there. Participation was on the rise, Canadian teams had just celebrated two gold medals at the Pan Am Games, and the current Rugby World Cup and next year's Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro were on the horizon.

Yet in the summer, the 45-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., found himself in a job interview with some 20 enthusiastic university athletic directors and presidents. The school officials had major ambitions to drive big growth within Canada's university sport system.

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The challenge is enormous. Canadian Interuniversity Sport gets little notice in the mainstream sports market, so the masses know little about the quality of the competitions that have long been long deemed inferior to their bigger-spending NCAA counterparts. But university sports can have a remarkable effect on campus life, and the CIS is daring to imagine the possibilities.

Brown resigned from Rugby Canada and on Sept. 3 took the job as CEO of CIS, an acronym that doesn't exactly roll easily off the tongue or have much cachet. His job will involve juggling the diverse interests of Canada's 56 universities, 11,500 athletes and 13 different sports. It'll be up to Brown and his staff – as well as the universities – to shine a brighter spotlight on athletes who now compete mostly in obscurity, and show that they're not inferior to their NCAA counterparts.

The CIS will start that process, it says, by telling its athletes' stories better, bolstering its brand, boosting its TV presence, attracting more sponsors, and giving more Canadians reason to pay attention. Having spent two years reviewing its operations, the organization is introducing a new governance model and plans to grow its staff. Universities here have more than $4-billion worth of sports facilities on their campuses, and more than a million students – the very millennial demographic that sponsors covet.

Brown's track record as a builder in small business, minor hockey and rugby convinced the CIS he could lead the charge. "I'm a sports administrator, but I'm also business person, and I want to run the CIS like a business," Brown said.

Brown grew up in Blenheim, Ont., and went to the University of Windsor, where he played varsity football and basketball while also helping to start a rugby club.

While at Windsor, he and a friend started a sports travel business called CSTT Sport Management. By the age of 25, he sold his share of the company and in 1998 became executive director of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.

The OMHA gave him his first taste of governing an organization run mostly by volunteers around kitchen tables. He worked closely with Hockey Canada, which he considered the gold standard, so he mimicked its tactics in everything he did.

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He left the OMHA in 2002 to become the chief operating officer at Rugby Canada during a tumultuous time of leadership changes there. By 2003, he was promoted to CEO.

"For my first four years at Rugby Canada, I constantly questioned why the heck I left hockey," Brown said. "I felt like I was taking over a broken-down car, but I soon realized that the guy before me had built it up from a bicycle. Plus I had great people working with me to fix it up."

Under Brown, Rugby Canada changed to a more efficient model of governance. It landed new sponsors, grew grassroots rugby, built a national training centre in Langford, B.C., attracted key international matches to Canada, grew the national staff to 40 members from three and the annual budget to $15-million from $3-million.

"We used to have rugby games in front of 2,500 people at Fletcher's Field [outside Toronto], and built up to games at BMO Field [downtown] with 22,000 people," Brown said. "Now all of our rugby events sell really well, and I'll tell you why: We refused to devalue our events. People wondered why so much at $25 a ticket? Because we give a great event. If people think it's cheap and you present it as cheap, I guarantee it will be a cheap product in the marketplace. I'll tell every CIS athletic director to commit to being the best you can be, and don't just run it because you're obligated to run that sports program. If you do that, that's just intramurals."

The CIS hired executive recruiter Mark Atkins of Lighthouse Search to look far and wide for CEO candidates. Brown wasn't interested at first, mostly because he thought the old CIS governance structure appeared ineffective, but Atkins, who has worked on hires for many of North America's top sports brands, convinced him to interview and take a closer look.

What Brown learned during the process changed his perspective. The CIS had completely overhauled the personnel and structure of its board of governors, adding four university presidents and enabling more efficient decision-making. The CEO would also get to hire a staff. Brown was blown away by their passion for change.

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"We're very motivated to raise the profile of CIS in Canada and around the world," said Mike Mahon, chair of the CIS board of directors and president at the University of Lethbridge. "It's in harmony with what our universities want to do, which is to position Canada, from a higher-education perspective, on the international stage."

Some headlines have added to the negative image of CIS sports in recent years. Teams being punished for hazing. Cash-strapped athletic programs threatening to drop programs. Star athletes leaving Canada to play in the NCAA. Sportsnet dropping Ontario University Athletics conference football games due to low ratings.

Many of the positives go unnoticed, except for a handful of high-profile successes of programs such as Carleton basketball, Laval football or University of Saskatchewan coach Lisa Thomaidis leading the national women's basketball team to an Olympic bid.

And people aren't broadly aware of the efforts CIS has made to keep athletes in Canada. It's introducing a pilot project in women's hockey that offers more robust scholarships, to test whether that keeps Canadian players from going to the NCAA. It also instituted a rule that erases the sit-out year for Canadian athletes transferring to CIS schools after playing at U.S colleges.

Moreover, nearly $16-million worth of athletic scholarships were awarded to CIS athletes in the 2013-14 school year – up 9.5 per cent over the previous year, and more than double the total from eight years ago. The CIS says 44 per cent of its athletes earned scholarships that, on average, covered about 52 per cent of their tuition and compulsory fees. That doesn't include the financial assistance given to athletes by Sport Canada or by the Canadian Hockey League.

Then there's coaching. "You might make the assumption that coaching is better in NCAA sports, and I would challenge that," said Thérèse Quigley, president of the CIS board of directors as well as the athletic director at University of Western Ontario. "They may have more coaches per team, but I think we have some of the strongest coaches anywhere. We have a very good product, and the value to the student athlete to compete and study in Canada is understated. And that falls on us. We aren't telling our story very effectively."

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Brown jumps into the new job armed with the experience of negotiating with broadcasters and sponsors. He built strong relationships with Canada's national sport federations, and those can be leveraged.

"I think Graham Brown is a good choice for this job because he's done well carving out a new spot for rugby in Canada – they've done well commercially and have been enterprising, and the national teams have steadily improved," said Chris Overholt, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "I think amateur sport has taken on a new place of importance in Canada since the Vancouver Olympics, and we at the COC have been more assertive about telling our athletes' stories. That's meant great things for us.

"So I have no doubt that many similar stories exist in CIS sports, and that great potential exists there too."

Among other things, Brown hopes to make Canadian university sports a big source of pride for the schools, the students and especially for the players themselves. "I want athletes to say 'I play in the CIS,' and for that to really mean something," he said.

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the challenges facing university athletic programs across Canada

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