Canadian Interuniversity Sport has a new quarterback.
Graham Brown is the man charged with the duty of leading CIS into the new frontier. Upon learning of his hiring, I wasn’t familiar with the name automatically but I was familiar with his work. As a former provincial rugby player I had direct contact with Rugby Canada before Brown took over. I was amazed at how the program has grown in recent years. Now living down the street from BMO Field in Toronto, I was amazed at how there was a buzz for rugby games in a major stadium when just a decade ago national games were played at local fields with only other current rugby players in attendance.
One of the reasons I decided to specialize in football instead of rugby at the university level is rugby at the time didn’t seem like a big deal in Canada. In just 10 years that dynamic has certainly changed. So I wondered how Brown planned to make similar changes in perception and performance in CIS. Below is my Q&A with him shortly before he was announced as CIS CEO.
Donnovan Bennett: What made you interested in this opportunity?
Graham Brown: I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if it wasn’t for (board of directors president) Therese Quigley and the board. If I were to tell the truth fully I wasn’t interested. Therese Quigley assured me of the governance changes. I was really sold on their vision and level of expectations. I had seen what has transpired in CIS over the years. I had been a supporter but when I met with the board I knew they were serious about creating something special.
DB: Since you weren’t initially interested, what was the turning point? Did a light bulb go off to make you view the position differently?
GB: The minute they said they changed the governance model. That was big for me. Every comment was about advancing CIS. That’s what I did in my last two jobs, that’s what I think attracted them to me. They were very clear that raising the standard of everything CIS does was the goal. Their passion came through and it was clear they had a very specific vision. From that point I was excited about the prospects.
DB: You’ve been around CIS as both a player and conscientious observer. Based off of your observations what’s the one thing you want to hit the ground running? In your time following CIS from afar did you have any strong opinions on what CIS should be doing?
GB: I don’t have strong opinions or a premeditated mindset. I approach it as it’s a business. The board doesn’t see why CIS can’t be the top sport organization in Canada. There are great institutions in CIS with great structure and great facilities. The strength of our institutions of higher learning in some way or another should be university sport. We have an opportunity that to this point they haven’t maximized. We have an opportunity to grow our corporate partners and to grow our fan base. Both will happen if we give them a better return on investment.
For me, to start I’m going to listen. Listen to people at all levels and in all sports. I know the hockey landscape pretty well as my son is involved in it. I’m engaged in rugby, I follow football and basketball so I know those pretty well but I have to become equally up to speed on all our sports. The board has made the mandate very clear, they want it to be the top sport organization in Canada and one of the top university sport organizations in the world. I know there are many hot button topics on my plate. Lots of discussion about football and tiering. For me the first thing I have to do is get connected with everyone doing the work already.
DB: How does your experience as a student athlete help you in this role?
GB: I was very fortunate to play a lot of sports when I was in university. I had a great experience personally and I met so many great people. (Current Windsor athletic director) Mike Havey was my basketball coach at Windsor and we are still friends to this day so I am excited to be able to work with him again. I was a good athlete but didn’t play one particular sport exceptionally well, I was just good at many sports. I could have probably played volleyball but wouldn’t be great at it.
I was a gym rat, I was always hanging out doing something athletic. One of the benefits is you meet lots of different people involved in sport so you get an appraisal of their experience and their story. This wasn’t the intended goal but it has set me up to stay in sport as what I do after I graduated.
DB: As Canadians, since we are so geographically close to the U.S. and consume so much American culture, CIS is often compared to the NCAA for better and for worse. Is there anything from the NCAA model that you can apply to CIS and try and replicate in Canada?
GB: I don’t know enough yet of their processes to say I want to replicate it. One thing I do know is it is professionally run. They make the game experience memorable for players and fans. It is incumbent upon us to start making national championships the very best. That is a place we need to strive to get to. We want the national championships to be something our teams and athletes strive to get to. And not just hope to be there but really strive to. I don’t think we are there, no. I’m sure there are some learnings from the NCAA for sure. But I think we need to remember we are not the NCAA. We are unique in Canada and I think that’s OK, we should embrace that.
DB: You mention that CIS championships are something to be strived to advance to. Unlike most competitive sports situations, currently in CIS the longer you play, the more cost you incur rather than the more money you make. Is there a way to lessen that burden for athletic directors and help the individual conferences support their successful teams?
GB: If we are successful we can make CIS more corporately viable. If we continue to grow the business there will be more funds available to help enhance all levels of the CIS. That needs to be our focus. That is what I did with Rugby Canada. Many people thought, ‘Well you took over Rugby Canada, that’s nice but rugby doesn’t really matter in Canada.’
Well, we were able to grow the business from $2.5 million to $15 million and it will eventually do $20 million. We went from only one team being close to fully funded, our senior men’s team, to now there is only one team that isn’t fully funded, that is our senior women but they still receive half a million dollars. Winning a championship should not burden our schools. In sports we talk a lot about fairness and that dynamic is not fair.
DB: CIS is in an interesting position where it is made up of and oversees four very distinct conferences that, due to geographical and cultural reasons, at times act very differently. How do you leverage allowing the conferences to have some autonomy but at the same time have an equal playing field across the board?
GB: What is key is that at the national level there are consistent regulations. Whatever the conferences choose to do at the conference level, as long as they are aware of how things are going to be done when they get to the national level, I think that’s fine. I think it is great that they build their own identity.
I know the Canada West and OUA see some things differently. The way things are done in Quebec are different and they have their very own distinct personality. I think that the conferences having their autonomy to run their own house is great. There has to be a clear understanding while they make their decisions of how things will be done at a national level.
DB: What is one thing that CIS fans should know about the Graham Brown era?
GB: This is a business to me. Yes, I come from amateur sport and I’ve been involved in amateur sport for 20 years but this to me is a business opportunity that should be treated as such. This isn’t charity. It should be treated like it was MLSE or any other major sports company in the marketplace. There will be a level of expectations and we will evaluate our processes. There will be performance expectations and metrics set up to evaluate what we are doing and how we are doing it.
Just like professional sports we should treat everything we do like a business. They should see CIS operates and runs like a business. No, we don’t pay the athletes like a business but that doesn’t mean we can’t give them a great experience and give our fans who support us a rewarding consumer experience as well.