If you haven’t heard by now the U Sports Uteck Bowl was trending for all the wrong reasons.
The final score was 81-3 for the visiting Western Mustangs over the AUS-champion Acadia Axemen. Western scored 11 TDs and barely seemed interested, never mind tested.
More alarming was the score could have been much worse. Western could have run up the score but largely didn’t blitz defensively, ran almost exclusively inside and outside zone offensively and, in the second half, began settling for field goals and eventually just started angle punting the ball out of bounds instead.
When I asked a CFL executive how many Acadia players would have started for Western he said two or three at the most.
An administrator at an U Sports institution told me many involved in the sport were hoping Western would get to 100 to underscore the fact that change is needed.
In high level competition there are going to be dominant performances and this Western team is undefeated and has been dominant all year. This is not to denigrate the Acadia players who fought hard all game and were dealt a tough hand playing on just three days rest.
But there needs to be a greater conversation about the systemic problem much bigger than this individual game or these individual teams.
The last time a AUS team made it to the Vanier Cup was 2007. An AUS school hasn’t won the Vanier Cup since 2002. The AUS has been outscored by a combined score of 427-131 in the last 10 national semifinals. An AUS program hasn’t been ranked in the top five of the top 10 since week two of 2010 (Saint Mary’s was ranked fourth).
How did we get here? The unintended consequence of the adoption of scholarships in Ontario and the expansion of football programs in Quebec meant that many of the prospects that decided to fly east for a competitive football experience have decided to stay home.
Things in sports are cyclical, but this is a long enough cycle that the evidence is more than circumstantial. The AUS as a conference actually has the most parity of any conference in the country. In the last decade the original four member institutions have each won the conference at least twice. (Bishop’s joined the conference for the first time this year). None have been a threat to win a title.
You can make the argument that the disparity has impacted who became the eventual champion as four out of the last six Vanier champs since 2011 have gone through the AUS to do it.
This is an issue not just for competitive balance but because U Sports has so few big stages to promote its product. One of the national stages it has in football is the U Sports bowls. At present time that opportunity isn’t being fully taken advantage of.
Parents of players, football alumni and Canadian football diehards will always watch no matter the score or platform. But U Sports has few chances on a national stage to attract an unique audience.
As much as it helps to tell the stories of U Sport athletes like McGill Med student Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is a starter with the Kansas City Chiefs or Kylie Masse winning Olympic medals and setting world records, it hurts the validity of the argument when the product seen on a national level is less than compelling.
Instead of talking about the exciting overtime finish of the Loney Bowl, or another classic Dunmore Cup, or an amazing game winning field goal to end the Hardy Cup, the talk around U Sports over the last two weeks has largely been a court case to settle if an alleged ineligible player should equal the cancelling of the Loney Bowl and a Uteck Bowl game that was over before it started.
Even if you’re from the school of “any news is good news,” you would acknowledge that you don’t want any news to overshadow the actual product you’re trying to sell.
So having said that, what’s next? Where do we go from here?
What is needed is further conversation and accountability.
The press box for the CFL East Final and the mentions of CFL writers this weekend was full of discussion on what should change.
With that conversation there has to be context on what the realistic realities are.
Here is what being proposed and why the fix may not be that simple.
Expand the playoffs.
Pro: Various proposals have been floated with either a six- or eight-team national playoff. Both would be exciting. You’d certainly find out who the best team in the nation is. It delivers enough top level games to create value in the product and most coaches would sign off on it right now.
Con: In many cases it presents more questions than answers. Both scenarios would entail either pushing the season back a week later or starting the season a week earlier. If you push it back a week later you now are going a week later than the Grey Cup. So all who are in favour of aligning the Vanier Cup with the Grey Cup, including U Sports CEO Graham Brown, would be out of luck.
If you move the season up earlier a week you are now starting games in the last week of August. That means all across the country games are being played when the majority of the student body is not on campus. What schools are interested in having one of their four regular season home dates during a period when the majority of their fan base isn’t around? Does the greater good of an expanded playoff outweigh the attendance issues for the rest of the member schools?
The other thing an expanded playoff would do is add increased travel.
Whether you use the six- or eight-team model the structure would most likely be the four conference champions hosting bowl games and then playing wildcard teams that were highly ranked. In this scenario, Montreal would have been the highest-ranked wild card and Acadia would have been the lowest-seeded conference champion. Would the score or outcome been any different if the Carabins played Acadia? Not likely.
At least that blowout would happen a week earlier, but it still isn’t solving the competitive balance and optics issues.
Create a two-tiered system.
Pro: This is another option that has been floated with teams being able to be promoted and relegated to keep both levels of play fair. Makes sense as clearly there is a large discrepancy in levels of play.
Con: Problem is nobody is signing up for that second tier. In this scenario a total conference (the AUS) would be relegated to second-tier status.
Furthermore, you’d eliminate the middle class. If a school who narrowly missed out on the playoffs (take Carleton, Saskatchewan or Manitoba this year as an example) but still considers itself elite, how does it recruit top level talent playing in tier two? Players with CFL aspirations aren’t signing a letter of intent to a tier-two school because they want to be seen by scouts and play against top level talent. Schools who have struggled like York, Toronto at the very least have been able to point to the fact that they’ve produced CFL players as a means to recruit. Without that incentive, it’s tough to recruit any top talent. Schools would virtually permanently be relegated to the lower tier. The balance of power could become greater not worse.
Regular season interlocking.
Pro: You get more best-on-best and fewer blowouts, which makes for good viewing and a good experience for the players.
Con: In the scenario of a “super league” being created, you’d have regular season games being played with teams travelling all across the country. Not a big issue for the Canada West as their players are often getting on a plane to travel for road games as it is. But for the balance of the country that again is added cost with no guaranteed return on investment. Laval just travelled to Calgary for a national semifinal. As great as the game was, the crowd wasn’t great. Many use the RSEQ conference and it’s great attendance as a example of what U Sports can be. Part of that success is that every game in Quebec is driving distance. All but two of the teams in Quebec reside in the same city. That proximity allows fans to travel to games and helps breed rivalry. As good as it would be to have top teams traveling across the country to play each other it wouldn’t look like a great TV product if great games are taking place in largely empty stadiums.
Pro: Keep the season as it is but instead of granting an automatic birth to the national semifinals have a poll or committee select the four best schools. This is virtually what takes place in the NCAA now and has largely been successful. It would also keep fans intrigued for the balance of the year.
Con: Answers many of the above issues, but how would you evaluate teams from other conferences if they don’t play an out of conference schedule? Schools from a conference who missed on being represented in the final four would argue that the missed opportunity would impact there ability to recruit nationally. Although you could make the argument that losing badly in the national semifinals hurts national recruiting more than it helps.
Pro: Although the teams are fighting for the same prize they operate under vastly different infrastructures. You have teams who are operated like for-profit businesses by outside investors (Laval), teams who operate like non-for-profit entities run by interested alumni (Carleton), teams who are run by interested stakeholders in conjunction with the school (UBC, Saskatchewan and Guelph), teams run with heavy investment from their athletics department (Western), and teams who run their football program with the checks and balances of the rest of the school athletic department, just happy to field a team (the majority of the country).
For some schools, success is winning a championship. For many athletic directors success is breaking even. U Sports athletics is one of the only endeavours in sports where you make less money the further you advance in the playoffs. Given that each school has different financial parameters and resources it is near impossible to expect the actual product be equal.
Con: Having said that, should you penalize the haves to help the have-nots? No school has done more to lift the standard of football than Laval. Is putting sanctions on the growth at the top the answer, when you’re trying to offer staying Canada as a viable alternative to the NCAA?
Many administrators and lovers of the game much smarter than I have thought long and hard about these issues to no avail.
One thing is clear is that the product is largely great. Which is why so many are so passionate about having it represented accurately. Administrators, coaches, players and the conferences themselves have taken great strides and most of that work goes largely overlooked and underappreciated. But for the product to continue to improve the process has to be examined and wholistic approach to better presenting it has to be had.
That conversation has to be had at all levels and I include myself as culpable in doing my part.
For now, let’s focus on a great Vanier Cup game between the undefeated Western Mustangs and the defending-champion Laval Rouge et Or.
And after that, let the conversation commence so that change can begin.