Field of Dreams

In the battle for students and funding, sports has emerged as a star player

John DeMont November 15 1999

Field of Dreams

In the battle for students and funding, sports has emerged as a star player

John DeMont November 15 1999

Field of Dreams


John DeMont

In the battle for students and funding, sports has emerged as a star player

On crisp fall Saturday afternoons, the Huskies Stadium at Saint Mary's University is often the hottest ticket in Halifax. Field level is manic: the crowd roars; the band wails. Every time the football team scores, a military cannon fires and the rabid, painted fans who make up the cheerleading Dog Pound hurl themselves, face-first, down the grassy slope at the end of the field. The best seat in the house is the presidents lounge: visitors have a double view of both the field and the basketball courts, where the defending Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union men’s basketball champs play home games. Saint Mary’s president Ken Ozmon, his stafif and faculty rub shoulders with the usual collection of aging ex-jocks, school alumni and student leaders. But the crowd is also well-stocked with business honchos, and, for good measure, provincial cabinet ministers or

federal members of Parliament. The reason is simple: Saint Mary’s needs new students and funding as much as the next school. And what better way to sell the university than to show it pulsing with spirit? “It is a great opener,” admits Ozmon. “It is up to you to exploit it.”

Anyone looking for a perfect example of how the role of sports has changed on Canadian campuses could do worse than consider Saint Mary’s. When Ozmon arrived 20 years ago, he inherited a school known—rightly or wrongly —for valuing its performance on the playing field over excellence in the classroom. How times have changed: the conservative old jock school is now known as an academic innovator. And the storied men’s teams are now valued for their ability to raise the school’s profile.

Make no mistake: Canada is still light-years

away from the United States, where scholarship athletes— including many from Canada—routinely pack mammoth stadiums. But across the nation, administrators are waking up to the fact that a top-notch hockey or basketball team can do more for a school than give it bragging rights over a cross-conference rival. Anyone who has ever sat in the bleachers during a late-season playoff game knows full well that sports can work wonders for campus morale. But who could have imagined that winning the Vanier Cup might help convince a Bay Street stockbroker to lend financial support? Or that smart high-school seniors would actually focus on intramural programs when choosing a university. Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic middle-distance runner, now dean of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, says: “Even the most outstanding students now realize that athletics is an important component of their overall development.”

Why are sports suddenly such a selling point for Canadian universities? The root reason is the harsh reality of todays educational marketplace. After years of underfunding, competition to attract and keep students is at its most cutthroat—and any edge in raising a schools visibility is welcome. Thanks to a television deal signed last year, worth an estimated $3 million over five years, Canadian university sports have never been more marketable. TSN, the cable sports network, now broadcasts CLAU finals in mens and womens hockey, basketball and volleyball, as well as semifinals and championship games in mens football. The Vanier Cup—campus footballs top trophy—is the major television draw, with some 250,000 viewers. But Canadian university sports is a definite winner for the network. “The audience tends to be in the 18 to 49 age-group,” points out TSN spokesman David Rosenbloom, “which just happens to fit our target audience perfectly.”

For schools with the talent and good fortune to make it to

the finals, the upside is obvious: a couple of hours of free national promotion with a dream audience—potential benefactors, older highschool students and parents searching for a school that seems to exemplify all they want for their offspring. “Anytime you can hit the national sports scene, the university reaps the benefits,” stresses Tom Allen, athletic director and head football coach at Bishops University in Lennoxville, Que. As proof, he cites his school’s increased draw from Nova Scotia—a trend he believes is connected to the success of Bishop’s men’s basketball team. Since ■ 1997, the team has played at the national championships in Halifax each year.

If some university administrators find it hard to quantify the value of increased visibility for their sports teams, few seem willing to discount it. Recently, Toronto’s York University and the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ont., have tried to strengthen their football teams. At Concordia University in Montreal, where the Stingers football team has consistently ranked in the country’s top 10, officials say that beefing up the sports program is as much part of their public relations strategy as ads on television or in national print media.

Still, not all universities are pouring money into varsity sports. Under immense fiscal pressure, universities have been going through endless soul-searching, trying to decide which sports programs they can afford. Adding to their headaches: increased pressure to fund more women’s teams, to reflect that more women than men are enrolling in Canadian universities. Some, like Ottawa’s Carleton University, have simply lowered the axe: earlier this year, students opted to chop the school’s football team, rather than pay an extra fee to keep the program afloat. Others are asking their sports programs to pay for themselves. The University of British Columbia raises its own funds for operation by renting out its facilities, offering programs to the community—including summer sports camps—and managing its own food services. (A portion of student fees goes towards the funding of athletic services and the maintenance of buildings such as arenas.) Edmonton’s University of Alberta bases its sports budget entirely on student fees and various fund-raising efforts. Even so, it managed to send 16 teams to CLAU championships last year.

Some universities are rethinking the entire role of athletics in campus life. “Until the early 1990s, the attitude here was that we should concentrate on a small number of sports,” says the University of Toronto’s Kidd. “Now, the focus is on ensuring that all students can use sports and recreation to enrich themselves.” Since Kidd took the job four years ago, the number of teams receiving varsity funding has increased from 16 to 43, even as the budget for intercollegiate athletics has dropped to $1.1 million for the 1999-2000 academic year

from $1.8 million in 1994-1995. The savings have gone to intramurals, fitness programs and other recreational activities used by 70 per cent of the students. The best demonstration of this philosophy at work: the slated razing of the old Varsity Stadium, which held 23,000 and was used mainly by the schools football, soccer and field hockey teams. Next fall, the university will break ground on its new $ 10-million Varsity Stadium—a streamlined model with 5,000 seats and an artificial field to be used from early-morning until midnight for a wide variety of activities by all students.

Elite varsity athletes cringe at such stories. For some, the possibility of playing in a large stadium crawling with pro scouts is simply one more reason to consider heading south. Another is money: last year, about 1,800 Canadian athletes made their way to American schools on National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships, which are worth an average of $ 18,300 a year per athlete. The CIAU, on the other hand, forbids granting athletic scholarships to entering students with averages below 80 per cent—and caps individual awards at a paltry $ 1,500 in succeeding years, although students may receive more than one.

Thanks to a lucrative television deal, varsity sports are getting more play than ever before

No wonder, then, that when the CIAU holds a special meeting later this month to discuss the scholarship issue, at least half of its member universities will be pushing for some change in the system to stanch the so-called brawn drain. Acting quickly may be important. The NCAA is considering changing a bylaw that currently prohibits anyone who has played junior hockey from competing at the varsity level in the United States. Such a change could cause headaches for the Canadian university hockey sys-

tern, where no such restriction exists and former junior players routinely move on to university teams. For now, the CIAU is putting on a brave face. “If it happens, we are confident that there will be no great exodus,” says CIAU president Wendy Bedingfield, a professor of kinesiology at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

For now, administrators seem to be counting on intangibles

—nationalism, a desire to stay close to home, a need to study at a university where athletics and academics are kept in balance—to attract the best Canadian athletes. Sometimes it even works. When Jessica Deglau, now 19 and a member of Canadas national swim team, graduated from Kitsilano High School in Vancouver, she was approached by coaches from the University of Southern Cal-

ifornia in Eos Angeles. But Deglau had spent her high-school years training at the University of British Columbia pool. It seemed logical to continue her education there. “I decided a long time ago to go to UBC,” says the second-year bachelor of arts student. “I never thought of going anywhere else.”

Most students, of course, get no closer to actual competition than the bleachers. For them, varsity sports is all about sideline camaraderie, a few hours off from hitting the books and good memories that can last a lifetime. Brent Fegaree,

who can be glimpsed in an outrageous costume loudly harassing the visiting team at almost every Acadia Axeman and Axette home game, may take his enthusiasm to a different level than most fans. But, basically, he is just like any other student. “Sports is a big reason why I am here,” says the 21-year-old business student, now in third year, from Canning, N.S. “Without sports, university wouldn’t be university.” Those words have perhaps never been truer. All that has changed is the reason why.

WINNING BIG Recent champs in major varsity sports MEN'S TEAMS Football Hockey Volleyball Basketball 1998-1999 Saskatchewan Alberta Saskatchewan Saint Mary’s 1997-1998 UBC New Brunswick Winnipeg Bishop’s 1996-1997 Saskatchewan Guelph Alberta Victoria 1995-1996 Calgary Acadia Manitoba Brandon 1994-1995 Western Moncton Manitoba Alberta WOMEN'S TEAMS Swimming Field Hockey Volleyball Basketball 1998-1999 UBC UBC Alberta Alberta 1997-1998 UBC Victoria Alberta Victoria 1996-1997 Toronto Toronto Alberta Manitoba 1995-19% UBC Victoria Alberta Manitoba 1994-1995 UBC Victoria Alberta Winnipeg

Jennifer Hunter

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