By Gavin Mackenzie
Before The Sports Network had Carlos Delgado, Mats Sundin and Vince Carter on its airwaves, the sweat off university athletes’ backs kept it in the game.
When the network debuted in 1984 it depended on Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union coverage to fill its air time until it inked contracts to televise big-league games.
Now CIAU sports are rarely covered. The station owns exclusive rights to broadcast all CIAU championship games, but does them primarily to meet Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requirements that demand it to cover 1,400 hours of amateur spots per year. Fans are arguing that the coverage is shoddy, because the broadcasters aren’t familiar with the players or the teams.
Still, ratings for CIAU sports are booming, so much so that one of Canada’s newest sports stations, The Score, has started knocking on the CIAU’s door. Their offer would give the CIAU the coverage it hasn’t had in years, but spokespeople for the league say a new contract isn’t in the works. The CIAU refuses to take a gamble on a new contract, and lose its 16-year relationship with TSN, one of its leading sponsors, even though TSN’s coverage is criticized by fans and industry professionals alike.
In May, after the CRTC gave The Score permission to devote 15 per cent of its broadcasts to live events, it turned its eye toward the CIAU.
It approached the CIAU and Ontario University Athletics this summer with proposals that would have seen the network start carrying regular-season and playoff coverage. But, the proposal required that the CIAU and OUA pay the network an undisclosed amount of money up front to help cover production costs.
Since TSN pays the CIAU for the rights to games, The Score deal was turned away.
Anthony Cicione, v.p. of programming at The Score thought his station’s proposal was a win-win situation. Even though the CIAU would pay money for the exposure, it would develop a high profile and wider fan base, allowing it to demand more money for sponsors and advertisers.
But Peter Metuzals, the CIAU’s marketing director, saw it as a gamble.
“[The Score] was going to provide us with consistent coverage throughout the year which is exactly what we need,” Metuzals said. “But we couldn’t have been sure of the type of return we would have got on an investment as large as they were asking for.”
This stance was taken even thought the CIAU’s TV ratings exploded last year.
Just under 500,000 viewers tuned in to watch the Laval Rouge et Or and the Sakatchewan Huskies battle for football’s championship trophy, the Vanier Cup — an increase of 97 per cent. Viewership of men’s and women’s basketball and hockey playoffs were up a whopping 153 and 150 per cent respectively.
To many people’s surprise, in a head-to-head battle last year’s underpublicized men’s basketball final-eight tournament averaged 159,000 viewers on TSN, while four media-hyped basketball games on CTV Sporsnet drew about one third that amount.
Ward Delise, executive director of the OUA, believes an increase in ratings may finally bring some validity to Canadian university sports, which have always been seen as inferior to American collegiate athletics.
“We are in a business and it all come down to what viewers will watch,” he said. “Numbers like the ones TSN generated are answering the question of whether or not there is interest in CIAU sports out there.”
Last year’s ratings boom set a new record for CIAU athletics, and was a welcome surprise, but Phil King, director of programming at TSN, said jumping into coverage of CIAU regular-season events based on the strength of last season’s success is simply too much of a risk.
“Despite the success last year we are still taking a huge loss on CIAU playoff coverage that doesn’t even come close to covering our costs,” he said. “We don’t have to capacity to take on that type of gamble.”
Currently, TSN is in the third year of a five-year deal with the CIAU. King said the reason TSN continues to cover CIAU sports, despite taking a huge loss in not just because the CRTC demands it to, but also because the stations feel a sense of loyalty to the CIAU, which has been with the network since its start.
TSN, however, has come under a lot of heat lately from CIAU fanatics, who subscribe to e-mail discussion lists.
In messages last spring fans argued that TSN is merely providing token coverage of CIAU sports as part of its CRTC obligations. One fan sent an e-mail in March saying “I was very disappointed when I set my VCR for the women’s final, only to have the first half hour pre-empted by auto racing somewhere deep in the States. Come on TSN, get it together.”
Cicione believes if The Score can build a steady following CIAU sports swill be profitable.
Broadcasting championship games after omitting the entire regular season “just doesn’t work,” he said. “But by doing consistent coverage you can generate that interest you need to make it successful.”
The CIAU may not be budging now, but Cicione is confident his station will reach a deal with the CIAU eventually. And more broadcasts would be welcomed be university athletes and coaches. Terry Haggerty, head coach of Ryerson’s men’s basketball team, said consistent weekly coverage of CIAU athletics would do wonders for the organization’s reputation.
“The power of television can’t be understated,” he said. “It’s huge because it raises the profile of not only our product but also our athletes, which is what we need right now.”