Road to the Vanier Cup: Count USports CEO among critics of playoff system

Regular blowouts. Playoff teams with 2-6 records. Bowl games that are losing their lustre.

The Canadian university football playoff structure has its share of critics and cries for change have been growing louder. The Laval Rouge et Or and Western Mustangs are set to square off in Saturday’s Vanier Cup in Quebec City, but the path to the championship game has been the subject of much debate.

Count U Sports president and chief executive officer Graham Brown among the group that would like to see adjustments to the post-season setup.

“I’m also a big critic of our current format,” Brown said. “I’m a critic of a number of things in football. It’s a bit of an oxymoron when I say that given the fact that I’m perceived to be able to make those changes … but the fact is that although I certainly have some significant influence, at the end of the day you still have your members (who) have to agree with some of these changes.”

U Sports is the national governing body of university sport in Canada. The four conferences across the nation include Ontario, Atlantic, Quebec and Canada West.

The current playoff format has put a spotlight on the significant gap between the handful of elite teams and the rest of the field in the country’s 27-team lineup.

Teams play off within their conferences to set up national semifinals – the Mitchell Bowl and the Uteck Bowl – to determine the teams for the Vanier Cup. For the second straight year, the Mustangs and Rouge et Or – both undefeated teams – will square off for the title.

Laval outscored the opposition by a staggering total of 117-1 over three playoff games, capped by a 63-0 win over the Atlantic champion St. FX X-Men 63-0 last weekend to secure a rematch at home against the reigning Vanier Cup champion Mustangs, who also rolled through the playoffs.

In Quebec, four of the five conference teams made the post-season, including two 2-6 squads. A different setup is used in the five-team Atlantic conference, where three teams advanced with the top seed getting a first-round bye.

In the six-team Canada West, a 3-5 team qualified as the fourth seed while six teams made the cut in the 11-team Ontario conference.

Football observers have floated a variety of post-season options, including an eight-team national playoff, a six-team showdown with byes for the first two seeds, and even a two-tiered approach where higher-ranked schools would be in a separate division altogether.

Some setups would require the removal of bye weeks and the use of a ranking system to determine some seeding positions. Others would increase travel costs.

“There’s challenges all around,” Brown said. “The biggest issue you have isn’t whether or not we look at a change to it. It’s how do you do it?”

Athletic directors and conference officials may have differing viewpoints and cost is often one of the biggest issues. In addition, some universities make heavier investments in facilities, coaching and recruiting.

“Our members, they basically refuse to get in the arms race,” Atlantic University Sport executive director Phil Currie said Thursday. “It’s because it’s not congruent with the philosophies they feel university sport is all about. The parity in our (Atlantic) league is fantastic.”

However, once the Atlantic champion reaches the final four, it has been a different story. The X-Men’s loss extended the conference’s Vanier Cup drought to 11 years.

Saint Mary’s was the last Atlantic team to win a national semifinal, topping Laval in 2007.

“The AUS schools are very, very committed to football,” Brown said. “We need to make sure that our messaging around the playoff structure doesn’t in any way insult the effort and monies and commitment they have to the game because they’re a big part of the fabric of it historically and just in general.”

The playoff setup will be one of the top priorities for new USports football director Richard MacLean. The organization is holding a management advisory committee meeting on Tuesday to discuss football concerns.

“I don’t foresee the status quo being one of the recommendations,” Brown said in a recent interview. “It’s certainly there but most of the people are in agreement that we should look at ways to improve football and one of them is the playoff structure.”

Any potential change wouldn’t occur until at least 2020, Brown said, since dates and planning for the 2019 schedule are being finalized now. Brown did acknowledge that the two-tiered option is an unlikely one.

“It’s been discussed and it hasn’t received any traction … the general consensus is that there are other things we can do to try to address some of our concerns in football and our first step would not be to create two divisions.”

Another issue at the forefront is the receding interest in the Vanier Cup. One potential solution is for the organization to realign with the CFL so that championship games could be played at the same venue.

“In the three short years that I’ve been here, it certainly has been discussed,” Brown said. “There would be enthusiasm on U Sports part. We are meeting with the CFL in December and one of our topics is to discuss where we can align. We have a very good working relationship with the CFL office.”

During their most recent partnership, the numbers were solid.

In 2011 in Vancouver, a total of 24,935 spectators took in McMaster’s 41-38 win over Laval. An announced crowd of 37,098 watched Laval’s 37-14 victory over the Marauders in a Vanier Cup rematch the next year in Toronto.

U Sports went back out on its own in 2013 and moved its championship game to Quebec City. The Vanier Cup was held at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field the last two years, but only 8,654 fans were on hand for the 2016 game and 10,754 watched the 2017 final.

National television ratings have also slipped in recent years.

According to Numeris figures from Sportsnet, the 2013 Vanier Cup drew an average audience of 375,000 on the network. Ratings dropped for each subsequent championship game with the 2017 matchup down to just 167,000.

This year, Sportsnet drew just 66,000 for the Mitchell Bowl and only 39,000 for the Uteck Bowl.

The CFL’s television contract with TSN runs through 2021 while Sportsnet’s deal with U Sports expires after this season. The CFL and U Sports would likely need to use the same broadcaster to resume a championship partnership.

Laval leads all teams with nine Vanier Cup victories and Western is next with seven. The 2019 title game will also be played at Telus-UL Stadium in Quebec City.

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