The future of Canadian university sport is on CBC

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By Ben Okazawa

On Sept. 20, CBC Sports announced it had obtained the rights to broadcast U Sports athletics until the end of the 2025-26 season. 

This came on the heels of Sportsnet’s contract expiring after six years of coverage from 2013-2019. U Sports needed a new broadcasting partner after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Canadian university sports for the better part of two seasons. The league came into the 2021-22 season without a major television outlet to showcase the talent that exists across the country. 

Enter: Chris Wilson. 

Wilson took over as executive director for CBC Sports in January of 2019 with a plan to show a different side of high-performance sports in Canada: the Paralympics, gender-equal coverage and what he called “events of national importance.” When the rights to show U Sports on television became available, Wilson said he felt as though the fit was right and made his move.

Now, after more than a year without sports, Rams athletes can expect some of their games to be seen by fans nationwide. Unfortunately, CBC will only be showing U Sports championships, but Rams games can still be seen on Ontario University Athletics (OUA) TV

Gord Grace, president and CEO of Ontario University Athletics (OUA), said he’s excited about the deal regardless of the amount of games being shown. 

“I give CBC a lot of credit…their Olympic coverage is top notch,” he said. “What better [network] for Ontario university sports and U Sports to be a part of?” 

Grace believes that the benefits of this deal for U Sports as a league are huge, given the undeniable level of exposure that comes with being on a nationally televised broadcast. 

“We see a lot of value as a public broadcaster in telling the story of U Sports”

However, U Sports isn’t the only beneficiary of this partnership. Wilson believes there’s merit in the deal for CBC too. 

“It’s not necessarily all about the numbers,” he said. “We want to have the highest viewership possible, but we see a lot of value as a public broadcaster in telling the story of U Sports.”

While Wilson and Grace are excited about the deal, it’s the athletes who will benefit most from the opportunity. For a league that’s often underrated and looked down on, getting more visibility is key. At the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo this summer, 62 of Team Canada’s representatives were former, current or incoming U Sports athletes

The average Canadian sports fan wouldn’t have known that though. CBC Sports plans to give the league and its athletes the recognition they deserve. 

David DeAveiro, who has spent more than two decades coaching U Sports men’s basketball, blames poor marketing for the lack of public awareness about the league. Now serving as the Rams head coach, DeAveiro looks at what CBC has done with its coverage of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) as a sign of good things to come for U Sports.

“The exposure that [CBC] has given the CEBL…exposes more people to the brand and to the level of play,” he noted. “It’s the beginning step of hopefully improving the visibility of [U Sports] and the athletes who really deserve that recognition.” 

Although being seen on national television is an exciting prospect, Rams athletes aren’t thinking too much about it. Alicia Lam, second-year setter for the women’s volleyball team, thinks that’s the case in part due to the professional nature of the Rams Live broadcast

“Going to Ryerson and having such a strong media program, I think we were used to it already,” said Lam. “It was kind of nice to go to a school that focused so much on the media behind athletics…I think that really prepared us.” 

Lam and DeAveiro agree that the initial excitement of the lights and cameras doesn’t matter much to athletes in the grand scheme of things. The women’s volleyball national championship in 2018 was broadcast on Sportsnet, but Lam said once the game started, her adrenaline kicked in, the blinders came on and she didn’t even notice the cameras. 

“The first time they see themselves on TV or their friends and family see them on CBC, it’s going to be an exciting time”

On the other hand, DeAveiro said he isn’t even sure if his players know that this year’s national championship is going to be televised. 

Lam remembers seeing the cameras and broadcast crew before the game as motivation and knowing that friends and family were watching from home made her want to perform to the best of her abilities. DeAveiro echoed that sentiment for his players. 

“The first time they see themselves on TV or their friends and family see them on CBC, it’s going to be an exciting time,” he said. 

The Rams men’s basketball team will have that opportunity in mid-March, when CBC will broadcast the men’s basketball national championships. Later that same month, Lam and her teammates will be seen on the network when the women’s volleyball tournament kicks off. Soccer and rugby were two of the fall sports championships shown in November, while curling, hockey, swimming and more will be shown on CBC between February and March. 

“I think when people look at what U Sports actually is, they’re often surprised at the quality,” said Wilson. “We’re hopeful that our coverage will bring attention and profile.”

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