By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
It is an acronym many do not recognize outside of university circles, yet, it represents one of the largest sporting institutions in this country.
Canadian Interuniversity Sport includes more 12,000 athletes in varsity athletics from 56 institutions across the country. Most recently, 158 athletes with ties to CIS sports competed in the Rio Olympics, 16 of them bringing home a medal.
However, neither numbers nor success have done anything in recent years to grow the notoriety or draw viewers to university sports. Newly appointed CIS president Graham Brown is hoping to change that.
“I think the biggest challenge is that we just haven’t marketed ourselves,” Brown says.
“It hasn’t been properly linked together at the top.”
Along with an organizational shift, Brown hopes to bring the different divisions of CIS across the country together in order to lock down big sponsorships dollars, which in turn could be used as a springboard to help CIS to grow.
Dollars and cents aside, Brown says CIS will not lose site of its main goal to “elevate university sport” with a focus on the student-athlete.
“It’s more about ensuring that young athletes who are looking at Canadian universities and parents who are looking at it and see another chapter in their son or daughter’s sport career.”
For Oshawa’s University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), this is good news, because it’s something they’ve been doing for the past decade.
For the past decade, UOIT has been growing its varsity sports programs from its humble roots in rowing and tennis to a wide selection of sports and teams that are now starting to prove themselves on the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) circuit.
“I think the biggest change that I’ve seen over the last couple of years specifically is that the level of competition is getting better,” says Scott Barker, UOIT’s head of athletics.
And it’s not just at UOIT, as Barker says more and more athletes are choosing Ontario for their post-secondary educations.
“I think what we’re doing strategically at universities is much more defined in the sense that we’re focused a lot on the student-athlete development,” Barker says.
At UOIT, that means educational support for athletes, along with nutrition and fitness programs to keep them on track with both their studies and their sport. Along with the practical aids, Barker says UOIT focuses on the experience as a whole, and helping to ensure athletes have the knowledge they need to succeed after school is over.
“They’re coming to university to get an education, but they’re leaving university with that four or five years of a ‘wow’ experience of the sport that they love,” he says.
The success of UOIT’s program and its relative infancy will prove fertile ground for the changes that Brown hopes to implement within CIS.
Solving the puzzle
More often than not, CIS will be compared to its American counterpart in the NCAA, an organization that has used branding and marketing, along with sporting success, to grow itself into an athletic empire south of the border.
However, for Barker, the two organizations are actually quite different.
“It’s not really apples to apple because the NCAA models are so different,” Barker says, noting the amount of community support, alumni engagement and scholarship dollars are something seen on a different level in the NCAA. The NCAA is also much larger, with more than 1,600 institutions.
Brown says he will take a few notes out of the NCAA book, noting they are successful at self-promotion and presenting their championships – however, he does not want the CIS to become a Canadian clone of the NCAA.
“It’s all part of a big puzzle,” he says.
It’s a puzzle that involves pulling together the four geographical organizations that govern CIS sports across Canada including Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and Canada West, and making sure each of them knows what’s going on in the other divisions.
“If something is happening at UOIT, the conference knows about it and CIS knows about it,” Brown explains.
“Already, I’m working more closely with the conferences, we’re already trying to work more closely with the schools.”
Plans to increase the number of televised games are already underway for this upcoming season and increased coordination between schools across the country could ensure the televised games are between local rivals or big grudge matches to maximize viewership.
It’s also rumoured that a new branding initiative is in the works that could see the organization shed its CIS moniker.
“That’s our plan. We’re hoping to do some exciting rebrands so, still going through the process,” Brown says.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that I think we’re close to getting it over the line.”
At UOIT, Barker says he’s excited for how the institution can aid in the future of growth for university sports.
“It’s certainly new waters that many schools and athletic directors will have to grasp hold of and understand because change is challenging sometimes to understand and sort of see the vision at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “We’re always open for what’s going to be better for the student-athlete experience.”