Pierre Arsenault to be named U Sports' next CEO — and has a huge task ahead of him

The U Sports logo is shown ahead of the final basketball game of the U Sports Final 8 Championships, in Ottawa, on Sunday, March 8, 2020. (Justin Tang/CP)

With its last CEO, the governing body of university athletics in Canada looked off-campus. This time around, U Sports is keeping it in the family, with an eye on competitive parity as an apparent focal point after two years of tumult and uncertainty with the organization.

Sources tell Sportsnet that Pierre Arsenault will be the new boss at U Sports, coming over from Mount Allison University, where he was director of athletics for over a decade. Arsenault replaces Graham Brown, who originally came in with grand aspirations of big sponsor deals and huge growth in viewership of national championships. But after five years at the helm, Brown left quietly a few months into the pandemic. Dick White has been interim CEO at U Sports since June 2020.

Arsenault has been a figure in the university athletics executive scene, involving himself in key U Sports committees over the years. And coming from a small school – Mount Allison has an enrollment just shy of 2,400, with only six varsity programs competing in U Sports – it will be interesting to see if the vision Arsenault once had for university athletics remains as campuses return to semblances of normalcy at this stage of COVID-19.

In an interview published on the U Sports website in 2018, Arsenault spoke of wanting to see more competitiveness at the national level – rather than the usual powerhouses dominating the marquee sports, namely football, basketball and hockey.

“I would like us to get to a state where we have 10-15 programs in every one of our sports (that) can legitimately compete for (Canadian) championships,” Arsenault said then. “The gap among the top teams in our sports and the next-best tier is wider than it should be, and it would be great if we can establish a set of parameters that allows for programs at the top of our sports.”

The reality: It will be quite difficult to create a structure in which such an equality can exist, so it will be interesting to see how Arsenault can navigate those waters. He comes from Atlantic University Sport, a conference where most schools have much smaller budgets for athletics and routinely get crushed in bowl games. An AUS school has not reached the Vanier Cup since 2007, never won a Bronze Baby women’s hoops title, and it’s been more than two decades since St. FX lifted the national men’s basketball championship.

All the while, other universities and conferences have grown in stature and built programs that are difficult to take down. Laval and Western have set the standard in football, Carleton in men’s basketball. How Arsenault may be able to get his gridiron Mounties within striking distance against the Mustangs or Rouge et Or seems farfetched, and competitive balance is not even front burner on the priorities for the incoming CEO.

The business side of the operation has taken a beating during COVID. Things came to a halt in the spring of 2020, and have been stop-and-start ever since. An organization that has true potential to connect with corporate Canada on sponsorship and investment hasn’t, and that side has gone dark since the pandemic hit. Besides the Vanier Cup on CBC, the national television presence for championships is now minimal at best. The organization’s social media presence is all but non-existent, the office staff has been reduced and at least one vital executive member is on leave.

While many leagues and sports have struggled through the pandemic, some national federations have been able to get through it, what with two Olympic Games staged in a seven-month window and events returning with paying customers. Among them all, U Sports may have taken the toughest blow. Matters didn’t help in January, with the embarrassing decision made by Ontario’s Ford government to not include OUA competitors as “elite” when outlining which athletes could train during the latest lockdown.

Arsenault’s job is a big one. The challenges ahead even larger.

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