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College football in Canada less tarnished than in U.S
In the U.S., all hell is breaking loose. That statement could apply to a lot of things, but in this case it is referring to college sports and football.
The NCAA’s major conferences are engaged in a merciless contest that is somewhere between the Cold War and a post-apocalyptic survival film: long-established entities are merging, betraying one another, breaking apart. There are safe ports in the storm, and there is the storm. The NCAA has become the Roman Coliseum.
In Canada, people like Peter Mueller can only wonder at it all. He is negotiating television contracts with the country’s big dogs, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, for Canadian university basketball and hockey. As the director of marketing for Canadian Interuniversity Sport, he scrapes together sponsorships, handles the broadcasting deals, is in charge of the website and social media outreach, and answers his own phone. After being told the SEC, the biggest NCAA conference of them all, broke the $1-billion barrier for revenues in 2010, Mueller was asked how his negotiations will turn out.
“It’ll be revenue-neutral to revenue-loss,” he says from Ottawa. “It’s not a money-maker. We do not generate rights fees from our deal with the television networks. It is not a money-maker for the CIS. Do the networks make money? Probably not, no. I would love to be in a situation where I could turn around and say: ‘Our men’s basketball property is driving billions of dollars for our universities’ but …”
Meanwhile, the NCAA is exploding and imploding, all at once. The Pac-12 may become the Pac-16, the Big 10 may become the Big 12, the current Big 12 may disintegrate - guys, maybe putting numbers in the name wasn’t the best idea - the ACC is stealing from the Big East, and even Notre Dame is looking a little nervous. Pressure is being exerted, negotiations are being conducted, and the money - oh, the money. It is capitalism in a distilled and muscular form, Darwinian and raw. It is America, plus English classes that you can probably skip if you have to.
“No honour, no trust,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw recently told reporters. “I think there’s really a lack of honour and a lack of trust throughout college athletics right now. It’s very unhealthy.”
His school, of course, may be left watching as its conference - the Big 12 - vanishes or is simply crippled. He is a small fish. Small fish don’t get to choose what happens to them.
America is run by the big fish, and the big fish must eat. The amount of money being generated by the unpaid athletes of the NCAA is staggering. Every major football conference has a national TV deal that runs for at least another 11 years. Last year, the NCAA basketball tournament signed a 14-year TV deal worth nearly $10 billion.
As conferences move toward superconferences that prize market size and financial muscle over geography - Texas would play the University of Washington in one version of the new Pac-16 - the whole notion of the student-athlete, already a sham, will continue to degrade. A recent wave of scandals at Miami and Ohio State are one thing; they are just the byproducts of the NCAA’s attempt to enforce amateurism on what are essentially pro athletes.
But The Atlantic magazine just published an extensive piece by historian Taylor Branch that methodically deconstructs the NCAA’s foundation, including the trembling legal pillars that hold it up. It is a devastating indictment, and leads one to believe the NCAA as it exists could be living on borrowed time.
The little old CIS, meanwhile, shuffles along. The conferences have TV deals, if not lucrative ones: Ontario with The Score; Quebec with the CBC’s French arm; the coasts with Shaw Cable, which isn’t quite NBC. The CIS budget is about $2.5 million. The organization has a staff of 10, working out of offices at the University of Ottawa.
“We love it here,” says Marg Mc-Gregor, CIS’s chief executive officer. “They generate their own power, and that’s a lower rate … than any commercial real estate in town, where you’d be buying power from the city. It (factored) into what the cost of square footage would be here.”
It is not that the CIS is not growing. Scholarships have gone from nothing to about $12 million in the last decade, almost exclusively via boosters. The University of British Columbia came close to leaving for the NCAA’s Division II over a spat regarding scholarships, along with concerns over quality of competition as the CIS expanded to 52 schools. There is a newly created advisory body of university presidents that will examine the scholarship issue; a cap of sorts seems likely.
“We don’t want carte blanche - open the vaults, and only those universities that have a long and storied history and rich alumni will survive,” McGregor says. “That’s not a sustainable model.”
Even under the current system, Université Laval has a milliondollar-plus budget for football alone, and UBC has been known to pay for private helicopters to ferry boosters and friends to its fundraisers, if need be. That scholarship money is largely generated by boosters, and there is surely some compensation passing under the table, somewhere. But it’s pennies on the U.S. dollar, like so much of what we do in this country.
The CIS always points to its academic standards, and to the Canadian athletes who headed south only to discover their four-year scholarships were renewed year to year. It has always marketed its amateurism, its balance, its relative purity. As Mueller puts it, it can sound like an apple pie argument - academics, pride in being Canadian, all that. It’s not perfect up here, but these days, more than ever, it rings pretty close to true.
By BRUCE ARTHUR, The Montreal Gazette