This is what Canadian university football's signature showcase has come down to — if the CFL doesn't want the Vanier Cup, then Laval will just take it.
With respect to Laval, which will be named host of the 2013 Vanier on Thursday, there should be confidence, fully completely, that the fleur-de-lis sporting flagship football franchise will be a great host. Unfortunately for anyone who cherishes university football, what won't be asked is how Laval hosting the championship game for the third time in five seasons actually helps grow the greater university game. None of the other 26 football-participating universities in Canadian Interuniversity Sport apparently bid.
There should be some conversation over what it means that decision-making process for where to hold a great, uniquely Canadian event has been boiled down to a simple three-step process?
— Step 1: Can the CFL accommodate us? (This year it cannot, since Regina apparently doesn't have the hotel infrastructure to lodge Vanier-only fans.)
— Step 2: That's OK, Laval can do it.
— Step 3: Who are we kidding? There is no Step 3.
It might sound, at first blush, like a best-of-both-worlds deal for CIS. Folding the Vanier into the Grey Cup festivities in 2011 and '12 gave great exposure to university football, although it's tough to prove whether that directly led to more media coverage and fans at games from late August through early November. McMaster's overtime shootout win over Laval in the 2011 Vanier in Vancouver was a most gripping contest; the "best game ever!" label that TSN analyst Duane Forde put on the Marauders' 41-38 win certainly had some stickiness. (Digression: it was not even the best university game of the last five seasons, but merely a really good game that was broadcast on TSN.) A record crowd of 37,098 turned out for their rematch at Rogers Centre last November, when Laval painted Southern Ontario rouge and pushed famous Mac alumnus Adam van Koeverden to behave in a less than Olympian manner.
Laval, whose typical regular-season crowds of 15,000 to 18,000 might surpass some teams' attendance for the year, will no doubt do an admirable job of hosting. There's also, he typed with tongue jammed in cheek, a slight chance the Rouge et Or might make it to the big game. They have only won the Quebec conference for 10 consecutive seasons, plus La Belle Province's best is due to face a team from the much-maligned Atlantic University Sport loop in this fall's Uteck Bowl. (Stadium issues in Halifax and lack of interest in Moncton means it's not clear where AUS will hold that game; maybe they can just move it to Laval, à la the struggling NCAA team which agrees to move its 'home' game to a powerhouse team's larger stadium.)
The point is the obvious. It's actually sad, in a way, that CIS is between a rock and the Rouge et Or's place. For starters, having the most powerful program enter the season with home-field advantage for the championship game in its back pocket three times in five years goes against the spirit of fair play. It is a classic rich-get-richer scenario. It would reek of anticlimax if Laval should roll through this season and win the Vanier Cup on home turf in November. One also fails to see how that will attract many new fans, since it will just feed the perception university football consists of three one-team conferences, the OUA, and Laval ruling all in November.
Bad football at what should be the best of times
The principle of 'as long as the bills get paid' should not sack what is good for the sport. Incoming CIS CEO Pierre Lafontaine, rather than toss around hypotheticals about being more NCAA-like, should work on one of CIS' core strengths. Football is not in the Olympic stream, which might not make it appealing to corporate sponsors, but it is CIS' marquee sport. The ever-improving quality of the athletes and the coaching in football across CIS might be the least concern.
The problem is that it often ends up having its worst football at the end of the season, which is the opposite of what is supposed to happen. The scores of last year's three national playoffs were 37-14, 42-7 and 45-6. In 2011, the semifinal results before that epic Vanier were 45-21 and 41-10. How do boring blowouts shown to a TSN audience that might not have seen a CIS game all season increase general interest?
Doing a dump-off to Laval isn't the cause of that. It's just symptomatic of the inequities that impair university football. It exacerbates the problem. Playing the game, for instance, in Southern Ontario, at a place such as Guelph's temporarily expanded stadium or the Western Mustangs' TD Waterhouse Stadium, could be a small remedy. A very small one, mind you. It's incumbent for CIS to make sure other bids can proceed, because there was interest in hosting in 2013.
Of course, neither of those institutions entered a bid. Nor did anyone else; there was scarcely little time for anyone to put together a strong bid once the door was thrown open around November, when it became clear Regina could not do it. Never mind that some urgency should have occurred much sooner.
The reason Laval can take the Vanier off the CFL's hands is because, as a privately run entity, it can dedicate staff and other resources to the event. Other athletic departments that operate under a university's thumb do not have the humanpower to do so. That highlights the difference between Laval and the Other 25 or 26, pending where the new Carleton Ravens fit in the grand scheme. Event management is also not part of CIS' skillset, since it operates with such a small staff and budget.
So you end up with the equivalent of letting the Alabama Crimson Tide take over planning of the BCS championship game (and scoop the BCS on the announcement). Well, they're gonna be there anyway...
That's something that Lafontaine needs to tackle: what can be done so that his body's biggest event can actually be played in a collegiate setting other than Laval once in a while? What's fair is fair. There are plenty other institutions of higher learning where you could picture the Vanier Cup being played in front of a raucous crowd.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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