Today, in the second of a three-part series on the future of Canadian university football, Pat Sheahan of the Queen's Golden Gaels, the dean of Ontario football coaches, talks about the proposed Northern 8 conference, a plan to increase interest in the game by creating a format to have Canada’s best teams play throughout the regular season.
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
A group of entrepreneurs from western Canada seems to have thought of everything in designing a framework to reform university football—except for one thing.
The promoters of the Northern 8 didn’t take into account the glacier-like speed with which Canadian Interuniversity Sport embraces change.
“The experience thus far has been very disappointing,” David Dube says in a promotional YouTube video.
The Northern 8 would be a non-profit entity, a quasi-conference that would remain under the umbrella of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. It would be managed by the investors with a board of directors comprising proportional representation from the existing conferences.
The plan to create a “pan-Canadian brand” to “renew the game” is based on the belief that intercollegiate football can only grow with exposure on national television, and the only way to get the networks interested in broadcasting Canadian university football games is to have the best teams playing each other. Therefore, the plan proposes a partial interlocking schedule initially involving eight teams—four from Ontario, two each from Canada West and Quebec, and none from Atlantic Canada.
The games would count in the conference standings, and playoffs would be held as they are now, with conference champions going to national semifinals and the winners to the Vanier Cup game.
The non-profit entity would be responsible for business costs, the costs of TV and for managing air travel—the cost of which would be equalized through a fund to which each of the eight participating schools would contribute $30,000. Profits would be dispersed among teams not participating in the Northern 8.
Canada West unanimously endorsed the proposal in December. Since then, there’s been virtually no response from any of the other conferences, other than a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you missive that essentially said, ‘We’ll get back to you when we’re good and ready.’
Dube is a Saskatoon businessman—CEO of the Concord Group and chairman of Sportbox Entertainment Group—who played for the Saskatchewan Huskies in the middle 1980s. A partner in the group that floated the Northern 8 concept, Dube says he’s most frustrated by the lack of collective urgency displayed by teams in the rest of Canada.
“The real opportunity was right here, right now,” he said in the video (http://youtu.be/LyH97oENKsc). “Will it be there in 2016? I’m not sure.”
That opportunity arose from the exponential growth of national all-sports cable television in Canada, from two English-language channels to 11. More channels need more programming, and none of them are now showing regular-season Canadian university football games.
“We thought the stars were aligning perfectly to bring college football in Canada back on television,” Dube said, but though they seemed intrigued, the feedback from the networks was not ambiguous. “They made it exceptionally clear that it had to be the best versus the best.”
Though that went directly to the heart of the group’s plan, the proposal appears to have ground to a halt. “You’d have to ask the schools and the conferences (why),” he said.
“All we’ve heard is things have happened too fast. I do understand it’s different in a university setting, but where I come from, when you see an opportunity, and we saw a unique opportunity in the media landscape in 2015, we wanted to take advantage of it, which meant moving quickly and decisively.”
Those are two gears the CIS has never been able to find.
Dube is convinced the plan still has merit.
“I’m always prepared to have a discussion, but we need to make sure we have the discussion that didn’t happen this time. The participants need to have a bit of an attitude change. Frankly, we need behaviour that is pushing the game nationally, that thinks about growing the game, but doesn’t break down into the politics of self interest.
“There’s tremendous potential to grow the game nationally, get it back on television, show people what it’s all about. The student athletes deserve that experience.”
In an in-depth interview with sportkingston.ca, Queen’s Golden Gaels coach Pat Sheahan, the dean of Ontario university football coaches, shared his thoughts of the Northern 8 proposal. Part 2 of our series is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q: What do you like about the proposal?
A: “There are some people, and I’m one of them, who feel that college football in Canada could be something more than it is. It could be one of the major sport venues in the country, if changes were made. What changes? If you want to get more people out to a football game, you better have bigger stadiums, and within that stadium, you better not be sitting there for two hours with a backache, and if you go into the bathroom, you can’t be worrying that the ceiling’s going to fall on you. And if it’s going to be family entertainment, you’re going to have concessions, and facilities that cater to more than just the ardent, pseudo football coach (fan)—it’s got to be entertaining: the music needs to be good, the sound needs to be good, the lighting needs to be good, access to the stadium, parking, all that stuff needs to be good. The NCAA approach is every spectator is a customer that they’re trying to win—from TV, from movies. They’re trying to make sure that on your Saturday afternoon (you think), ‘We’re not going to go shopping, we’re not going to go to a restaurant, we’re going to go to the football game,’ so they make sure the clientele is entertained.
“This initiative is (from) successful business types who see the potential for Canadian college football to take on the regional pride that the CFL once had. The strength they see is it’s all Canadian kids, so let’s promote the Canadian brand. They think fans in Kingston will get excited about the University of Saskatchewan coming here on a Saturday afternoon to play a league game, and not have to wait 40 years to get them here (only) if you happen to be hosting a bowl game.
“If you have access to the best teams in the country, you generate new interest; great new traditions are created. That’s what I like about it.”
Q: What are the challenges?
A: “You have to establish workable standards. If you’re going to generate revenue, you have to have crowds, and if you hope to have crowds, you have to have a facility (to accommodate them). Without television, what sport venue has a chance? So there’s no question that if you’re going to do this, it has to be something the media will get excited about, that people think has real value, that you can sell to the public.”
Q: What’s the biggest impediment to that now?
A: “The number of blowouts that are currently occurring. Who wants to pay money to watch a team win 75-7? It’s a foregone conclusion. The Canadian sports fan is a playoff-driven fan: they like close games; they love overtime. They want to be entertained. Sure, they hope the home team wins all the time, and if it’s by a touchdown or a field goal, what a great game that was. If it’s 48-0, what happens to our games here? If we’re up 48-0 our crowd is gone by halftime. The number of times I’ve kidded with our guys, ‘Way to go, you’ve killed our crowd.’ That’s not what people are interested in. The Canadian sports fan is a fairly sophisticated fan. We don’t just go to the stadium because it’s some sort of religious experience, where, ‘I’m from Alabama, so I’m going because it’s our state pride on the line.’ Our fans go to the game to be entertained.
“There’s a number of Queen’s grads that I’ve talked to over the years, who remember it was fun, it was great, ‘We used to go all the time, it was a gas,’ but with each passing year the sports fan is becoming more demanding. Some people’s vision is: Can we push it to a new level, get meaningful games, played in full stadiums, that are televised, that capture the imagination of the Canadian sports fan? Those people don’t believe we’re accomplishing that now.”
Q: What are the issues in transitioning from the status quo to that model:
A: “Facilities, budget (and) what happens to the teams that don’t have access to business tycoons to fund the transition for the next four or five years and if they do, where have they been while their teams have lumbered in anonymity and mediocrity? All of a sudden they’re going to come out of the woodwork and start pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a program? Maybe they will.
“If you could make every football game at Queen’s something that everybody is excited about, and they’re talking about the next game from the Sunday afternoon after the previous game, and if you know Queen’s is flying to Edmonton to play the University of Alberta and the stadium is going to be full, and every bar and restaurant in Kingston is full with people watching the game, that means the venue has value.
“The whole idea that somebody is looking to make it better than it is, is interesting. It’s something that we’d all like to see. Everybody wants to see it better than it is.”
Q: From where will the money come to do that?
A: “The first question for an athletics director is, ‘How how much is this going to cost?’ and then, ‘Where are we going to get the money to do that?’ These are the questions that administrators at publicly funded institutions are bound by. You can’t make flippant decisions about some kind of Walt Disney interpretation of reality. If you want to create something that’s really big, typically at publicly funded institutions you have to take baby steps. (People will say), ‘Look, we lost 200 beds at KGH and now football’s going to cost 1.5 million dollars to run?’ Those are legitimate concerns.
“Given the creativity of the current generation of athletic directors, do they have something to take to the next level? There are some people who think that the status quo is fine. Their football teams go out there, year after year, and don’t make the playoffs, but that’s fine: ‘We’ve provided a service to our students.’ There are others who think that college football can be, and should be, something much more. The impetus of these business guys, how they’re going to make it go and sell it, is valuable.”
Q: Isn’t there a risk that pushing the elite programs to a different stratum only makes the gap between the haves and have-nots greater, possibly to the point where schools abandon the game?
A: “There are some who would say, ‘Good, let’s get rid of the dead wood.’ The people who don’t want to be in it? Let’s call their bluff. Maybe we’re best served (if they leave) or if they want to operate at a lower level. If they want to be a (second-tier program), have a regional conference. They do it in the U.S. It’s called Division III. They have regional rivalries, they have a couple of full-time coaches. They have football for tradition’s sake, because it’s part of the university fabric, but it’s not something that’s going to cost the university or the student body thousands and thousands of dollars to operate. You have limited budgets and limited recruiting, but you’re playing football.
“(In the U.S.), college football competes with the NFL. Are we capable of competing with professional football (in Canada)? There are those who feel that if we’re going to take that challenge, we’d better get our best guys playing against our best guys on a regular basis, and the best schools, unfortunately, are going to be the best-funded programs. You can see that this invites interventions on a variety of levels.”
Q: Is there a philosophical appetite for this to happen?
A: “There are still enough people left who remember the elite approach to football. They remember the stadium being full at McGill when Queen’s rolled in there. The model has a place in our history. The model got dismantled for what was perceived to be the greater good.
“You’re going to have people say, ‘That’s elitist.’ Yeah, well, you know what? University is elitist. Not everybody goes to Queen’s. High-level sport is elitist; it’s for the very best. The (Northern 8 proponents) want to create a venue where the very best football players go to institutions that want to compete at the very best level.
“Can you sell it? Will people buy it? How many do you need? Do you need 20,000-seat stadiums now? Usually when you talk about this, there are some prerequisites. You better have a ball park that can generate some revenue. Can we get 10 to 15 thousand people at the game?”
Q: If this takes root, will Queen’s want to be a part of it?
A: “I’m hoping that if a conference is created where all the best teams are involved, that we still have the desire to compete with the best. Or, do we go back and become part of some Ivy League, where we’re going to compete against like-minded institutions? Are we going to be the Yale, the Harvard, clearly something different? Are we going to be taking the brightest minds and trying to make a football team out of them? And the ones who want to go on and make a pure sport (decision), let them go?
“That’s philosophy, economics, and maybe some of our reality as well. When Harvard plays Yale, the stadium is full. You have two very good football teams, there’s a bunch of doctors and lawyers out there playing against each other, and there’s enough people going to support it to keep it going, but they’re not going to the Rose Bowl, and they’re not getting a 17 million-dollar payout from a bowl game. There’s clearly something else that (makes it) important to them to play football at that level.
Q: Can’t you do that within the current framework?
A: “You can’t create that level of participation, excitement, or interest with our current structure. Membership (in the Northern 8) will have its privileges, but it will also have its responsibilities. If you’re in, you’ve got to be all in. It will be interesting to see. The Canadian sport model, there’s no question it’s more conservative; it’s less daring than our counterparts (in the U.S.). On the academic side, it’s ‘OK, what compromises do we have to make to be here?’ because if you’re going to compete against the best, you better have the best. We need some big ones and we need some fast ones. Every year, we need them, and not all those people are going to be doctors and lawyers.
“Notre Dame’s a good example of somebody (who) said we’re not going to make those compromises any more. Notre Dame has not won a national championship (since) they made this significant philosophical shift, but they also increased their stadium size by 30,000, so it makes you wonder. Stanford is another one that has demonstrated that you can take bright kids, maintain some level of academic standard and be competitive. There are a few schools that are high academic institutions that can do it. What I’d like to know is how many of the guys scoring the touchdowns are meeting the entrance requirements, or are they making accommodations for them?”
Tomorrow: What it all means—it’s time for the CIS to act.