The Legacy of Pierre Lafontaine

Is it every (sporty) kid’s dream to play in the CIS one day?  I think that’s a stretch.  I did, but I was a volleyballer, and there wasn’t a higher rung to strive towards in Canada (hell, even in North America).  Europe, yes.  But making the quantum leap from the Ontario Volleyball Association to Real Madrid (yep, they have a pro vball team too), was not exactly in my sights.

Anyways, it can be argued that for many sports, the CIS is the apex on the amateur scale; at least on Canadian soil.  Of course, most of the professional sports have a slightly different twist to them aspirationally.

[Sidebar: Professional sports, in my opinion, are like professional degrees, you have to go that extra mile (Masters degree) to attain your goals.  For now, we will assume that the major professional sports in North America – Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Soccer, and Lacrosse – are the “professional degrees”.  Yes, I know that there are other pro and semi-pro (went through law-school but didn’t pass the Bar) leagues around, but let’s give the big boys their due.]

For volleyball, and most CIS sports, this was definitely the case.  Except maybe for men’s hockey.  The level of play is quite high, and most of the guys there have played in the CHL, and therefore have aspired to go to the show.

Here’s my story:  I got to training camp in my freshmen year with the McGill Redmen, and felt like about 4,385 bucks.  We ran, and hit the gym, and ran stadiums, and hit balls, and ran the mountain (Mont Royal, which is more of a hill), and studied film, and ran and ran and ran.  Either way, we were five freshmen starters out of seven (I include the second middle as a starter) due to a high turnover of graduates from the previous year.  We were definitely in shape, but uber raw.  And that doesn’t fly in RSEQ volleyball.  I don’t mean to knock the OUA, AUS, or CWUAA, where height and power rule, but we weren’t used to the speed or age of the players from Laval, Montreal, and Sherbrooke (yes, there were only four teams in the conference).  I was a piglet-faced bean-pole of an 18-year-old facing 25-year-old bearded lumberjacks out of the CEGEP system.  Those guys would hammer it at us so hard I had blisters on my forehead from turtling so much.  For those of you that don’t know: In Québec, high school goes til grade 11, then you are required to attend a college (or CEGEP = Collège d’Enseignement Général Et Professionnel) for two years, and then it only takes three years to finish a Bachelor’s degree.  Here’s the plug: You can stay in CEGEP as long as you want.  Therefore, many athletes take a couple of years, and literally transform into full-grown Siberian tigers by the time their playing CIS sport.  Anyways, in volleyball it was a lousy payoff for dreaming so big.  We never won a conference championship, we never made CIS finals, and our program got cut (leaving three schools in Québec volleyball) after I graduated.  [Insert deflating sound of your choice].

At this point, I’d like to move past my confidence-crushing experience as a CIS athlete, and tell you a little story about a Concordia biology student that careened his way to the top of the Canadian amateur sports world.  Some might describe him as brash or stubborn, while others would say he’s an innovator and go-getter.  Pierre Lafontaine took on the CIS last year, after a successful eight-year stint with Swimming Canada, where he led the organization to consistent podium performances at major international games, while doubling both membership and the budget.  He was a true troubadour, spreading the good word of amateur sport.  He brought CIS out of the Dark Ages by inking a long-term broadcasting deal with Sportsnet, and envisioning the highly-touted Championship Weekend (to a mix of skepticism and praise).  Unfortunately, his loud personality and counter-institutional ambitions led to his stepping down after only two years at the helm – surely not enough time to develop sea legs and steer the ship.  That being said, we do not know the whole story, so why don’t we evaluate his legacy?

On March 14th and 15th, 2015, the CIS hosted one of it’s most ambitious endeavours in its history: the Sportsnet U Championship Weekend (although I’ve heard it referred to by half a dozen different names).  As advertised, there were 12 semi-finals and finals (combined), with over 30 hours of basketball and hockey madness!  At this point we do not need to mention that, other than the Vanier Cup, none of the other CIS sports get super guru broadcasting treatment.  But I just did.  I consider the initiative ambitious, but only because Pierre came up with it.  Having all four championships (Men’s & Women’s Hockey and Basketball) on one weekend is a lofty logistical nightmare, AND to get it all on TV takes it all to Boogie Man proportions.  That being said, CIS sport is thankfully starting to become a little more mainstream because of Sportsnet U, which signed a big six-year deal with the Canadian student-athlete champion in 2014.  Football, has grown on the tube, but not much else.  So why don’t we look at this by the numbers…

Total Viewership for all 2015 Semis & Finals

CIS_Championship_Weeked_Viewership_Numbers

Numbers, numbers, numbers.  Every good analysis needs good numbers.  Through the gracious aid of both the CIS and Sportsnet, I was able to get my hand on the viewership numbers (TV and webcast) for Super Sports Jamboree Weekend Event.  Here are my thoughts on the total viewership tally:

  • First off, there is a wide range of audience stats across the 12 games, from 61,336 (Men’s Hockey Final) to 4678 (Women’s Hockey Semis: Montreal-Western).
  • After the MHK Final, MBB (53,519) and WHK (42,164) Finals come in at #2 and #3, with WBB Final coming in at #5 (39,078).
    • MHK Semis (Alberta-UQTR) came in at #4, which makes me think these schools likely either:
      1. Promote their teams more avidly than Sham Wow
      2. Have more fanatic students tuning in
      3. Enjoy a larger alumni/casual hockey fan pool
  • All but 3 games (WBB Saskatchewan-Windsor; WHK St FX-McGill; and WHK Montreal-Western) were above the 25,000 plateau.  Impressive.
  • Men’s sports take up 6 of the top 8 spots, with the four Women’s Semis rounding out the bottom of the group.  Unfortunate and predictable, yet still big numbers by the two Women’s Finals.
  • These numbers do not include at-game audiences, though.  Arena capacities of the four hosts breakdown like this:
    • WBB – Québec City – Laval – PEPS – 2000
    • WHK – Calgary – Calgary – Markin MacPhail Centre – 3000 (average attendance = 291)
      • There were two attendance outliers for the Women’s Hockey championships:
        1. 771 (164.5% to AVG) – The host, Calgary Dinos, first game.  They got crushed 8-2 by the McGill Martlets.  UC marketing must have killed it to get that kind of attendance, but unfortunately their subsequent game brought out a more down to earth (-51.3% to AVG) mark.
        2. 652 (123.7% to AVG) – Finals.  Makes sense.
    • MBB – Toronto – Ryerson – Mattamy Athletic Centre – 1000
    • MHK – Halifax – St. FX (Antigonish, NS) – Scotiabank Centre – 12,000 (average attendance = 3838)
  • Lastly, it is worth noting that these numbers are for each individual device being used.  So if a family of 39 is watching the game on their iPod, then that’ll drastically boost the Montreal-Western Women’s Hockey Semis…

Total Television Viewership for all 2014 and 2015 Finals

2014-2015_Finals_YOY_Comparison

As a budding stats geek, I thought it would be mildly interesting to look at how all four sports compared to last year [Sportsnet U only started broadcasting Semis this year, so we will use only the Finals of each]. Let’s dissect each one:

  • Women’s Basketball.  This year’s final is up 192.3% (13,000 to 38,000).  Drop the mic.  Well not yet.  This is obviously an unreal growth in a span of one year.  FYI, Windsor won both years (in fact this was Windsor’s 5th in a row, yes 5th), and hosted the championships in 2014… So I think the huge rise had a lot to do with a combination of the following:
    • Windsorites wanted to see five in a row
    • Viewers, in general, wanted to see five in a row
    • Windsorites actually make up 65% of the 38,000 and last year they were all just at the game instead of watching it on TV (that’s just my theory)

Regardless of what the reasons were, all hail Lancers WBB for #highfive/#5inarow/#five alive/#NBD (whatever social media deems as trend-worthy) and for outrageously upping viewership and the ante.  Now drop the mic.

  • Women’s Hockey.  Up 75%.  Boom.  Although, not so boom beside WBB.  In any other year, this would be the cream of the crop, but 192.3% is the cherry on top of the cream of the crop…  Nevermind.  I have a special place in my medulla oblongata for women’s hockey.  Mostly because the McGill Martlets killed it while I was there, and are still killing it, except this year, but they’ll live to kill again.  [Sidebar:The martlet is a small bird, usually depicted without feet and, in some cases, without a beak. There is some dispute as to what kind of bird it is. In English heraldry, it is a swallow; in French heraldry, it looks very much like a duckling. In German heraldry, it is said to be a lark.  So it’s the McGill Terrifying Flightless Birds, or TFBs].  I also have a soft spot because I have personally witnessed the growth of women’s hockey in this country through the CIS, the Canadian National Team, and the newly formed CWHL.  Which gives me hope for further development of all amateur sports down the line.
  • Men’s Hockey.  Still above and beyond the other three this year, but down -55.8% this year from last.  A lot you say?  Well, from what I understand, the 2014 edition of the imaginatively-named University Cup was aired on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West, and Pacific (the whole network, basically), and this year it was only aired on SN360… That kind of takes the wind out of it, doesn’t it?  You’re telling me last year’s game enticed 138,000 different TV sets to tune in for the university championship game, and you cut it back to one channel?  Really?  I don’t even want to talk about this anymore.
  • Men’s Basketball.  This one’s a tricky one, because numbers are up 65.6% from last year, but you could argue the same thing as Lancers WBB:
    • Carleton has also won five in a row #likealancer
    • Carleton hosted the championships in 2014 #likealancer
    • I have a feeling most of the viewership was from the past champions city #likealancer

Other than drawing similarities between our nations two basketball dynasties, I think it’s fair to pat the Ravens on the back just two more times for the following reasons:

  • The city of Ottawa is becoming an unprecedented basketball hub, with Carleton and UofO as the #1 and #2 teams in the nation.  This is a huge shift in Canadian basketball as most of the hype til now was all about Toronto.
  • The Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa hosted 2014’s championships with something stupid like 10,000 fans in attendance. That’s ridiculous!

All in all, viewership numbers are up across 3 out of 4 sports, which is a big win.  In fact, considering we don’t really have to worry about bumping up Men’s Hockey numbers next year, I think this is a really HUGE win.  Go Super Championship Weekend, or whatever we’re calling it.

2014/15 CIS Major Events Comparison

Vanier-Champ_Wkd_Comparison

I think it is fair to say that up until now the CIS’s biggest marketing asset has been the hallowed Vanier Cup, celebrating it’s 50th year in November 2014.  Therefore, the Sportsnet U Championship Weekend is ultimately it’s second biggest marketing asset, even if it is 40 games total as opposed to one.  The above chart just shows you how much more the Old Boys’ Football Club outnumbers the Old Girls & Boys Club of Every Other Sport.  Two important thinking points here:

  1. The 50th Vanier Cup was actually down -13.4% (321,000 to 278,000) from the 49th Vanier Cup.  Odd, considering the marketing push, but it is what it is.
  2. If the 77,000 viewers we lost because of Sportsnet’s decision to cutback on Men’s Hockey were still in the fold, the new viewership total for the Super Duper Sports Weekend would be 271,000… basically the same.  Impressive.

In conclusion, impressive is the word.  I am impressed with the viewership numbers (regardless of hockey, which will boost again next year), I am impressed with the well planned logistics and hosting (I only attended the Ryerson MBB Finals), and I am impressed with the CIS’ unified front following the departure of their passionate leader.  Next thing to work on: Creating a more competitive product.  Harsh words, but check out the average margin of victory (AMV) across the board:

  • Women’s Basketball -13.45 points
  • Men’s Basketball – 15.18 points
  • Women’s Hockey – 2.45 goals
  • Men’s Hockey – 2.88 goals

In basketball standards these are close to blowout numbers (let’s not even touch Carleton’s 47-point massacre of the Ottawa Gee-Gees in the MBB Finals), and the hockey AMVs could be mistaken for average of total goals per game.  Dynasties are great (Windsor Lancers WBB, McGill Martlets WHK, Carleton Ravens MBB), but unless there are also rivalries and upsets, the sport doesn’t grow and foster the right kind of development for our athletes.  Compared to NCAA’s March Madness, however, the CIS is about as competitive as a stabbed-in-the-ribs Maximus in the last scene of Gladiator.  Yes, the NCAA has its major issues.  And yes, there are 64 (now 68) teams, which adds to the excitement.  And yes, these guys are fighting for potential pro contracts.  But, it is GREAT basketball, broadcast nationally, and kids want to get into the sport more because of it.  Unfortunately, Little Tommy, who witnessed the Carleton-Ottawa misrepresentation of a game at the Mattamy Centre on March 15th, isn’t thinking: “Golly, I want to be like Philip Scrubb when I grow up”; he’s thinking: “That game was hard to watch, and I never want to play basketball ever”.  This may be a slight exaggeration, but the point is, if Carleton won by a smaller margin but the game was competitive, Little Tommy’s initial thought would have rang true.  And that is what the CIS should be shooting for.  Building an experience that every (sporty) kid dreams of being a part of.  Just like Little Tommy.

O Canada.

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