In The Medium’s last interview with Graham Brown, published September 19 2016, we talked about the strategy in place to grow the CIS as a platform for student athletes, boost marketing, and improve the fan experience. Since that article, Brown has shaken things up, rebranding the CIS as U Sports, signaling a new era of Canadian university sport.
Brown is all settled into his role as CEO, and with a new team integrated, U Sports is finding ways to connect with athletes and respond to feedback swiftly. For instance, a comment on our last article questioned why scholarships weren’t mentioned—Brown responded to the comment directly, and offered his explanation in a phone call between him and the commenter. He is making himself accessible, unafraid of criticism, and is intent on giving student athletes a clear message about his plan and how they are affected.
In my recent interview with the U Sports CEO, he provided some colour around scholarships. It’s an issue on his priority list, though not as pertinent right now. The system currently in place caps scholarships to incoming students at $4,500, which is granted if students maintain an average of at least 80 percent. This scholarship will pay for tuition fees, but will not cover other crucial expenses like food, books, or accommodations. Regardless, that doesn’t make it an unattractive option to student athletes.
One Varsity Blues athlete, who has been under scholarship for the past two seasons, doesn’t believe the aid to student athletes is enough to give them any significant benefit, “I think that the money is not enough. Being a student athlete is a very demanding task, because of the obstacles that are placed on us. In an average school week [in season] I would dedicate roughly 25 hours to my sport. An everyday student could put those man hours into school or a job which would give them more than a $4500 value. With the amount of donations, fees and increased publicity I think that full scholarships would be fair for some student athletes.”
The knee-jerk reaction from a few has been to contrast what U Sports offers to the NCAA. Sadly, it is wholly unfair to do so, and ends up creating confusion for prospective student athletes who may not be considering the full scope of what both programs offer. NCAA may have the full-ride scholarship covering all expenses, and their bevy of other scholarships is certainly packed with more cash than the $4,500 U Sports offers, but after putting things into perspective, factoring in how much tuition fees in the United States really are, it becomes clear that what U Sports is offering isn’t as terrible as some may think.
Brown is even trying to bend the requirements slightly so more students have a shot at attaining a scholarship. “I really think that the 80 percent to get started as a first-year student may work for some schools, but that won’t work for everybody,” he says. For schools where eligibility may be a lower percentage (say, 76 percent), he is suggesting there should be no reason to disqualify those athletes from a scholarship just because they do not meet U Sports standards.
The target audience for these scholarships is high school students. U Sports is fully aware that there needs to be a greater focus on educating students about Canadian university sports and how they can become a part of it. This idea is central to Graham’s next marketing initiative: having universities spread the word about their program within their community. “We’re working on a promotional campaign in high schools for high school students,” he says. “We have schools focused on the communities they are in, so Western is focused on London and Carleton is focused on Ottawa, everyone is focused.”
The brand of U Sports is a bold step for a brand that has long been vanilla. Brown is a marketer by trade and with a network of colleagues, brainstormed ways to make the CIS/SIC name fresh, less awkward, and a little more flashy. “The brand didn’t mean anything in the community really. So as a result, it became part of the whole process to redefine and re-establish university sport in Canada.”
Brown is hoping to drive change through marketing, not only to boost public awareness, but also to stimulate morale among the vast number of athletes who may sometimes feel unseen. “Everything from how we communicate on social media to our pictures of athletes. I don’t want an image of a student athlete that is not exciting,” he says. “I want people who are playing volleyball at university to get excited when they see volleyball on social media. I want student athletes to feel more important and valued than they might already.”
There have been a few growing pains, particularly with the Vanier Cup, which was poorly attended—something Brown hopes changes drastically next year. There has also been lack of coverage from national media partner, The Globe and Mail, which Brown understands isn’t something that will happen overnight. “The national media, it’s not a light-switch. You have to prove to them that you’re changing, that they should cover you, that you’re giving them content that’s more exciting.”
It’s been a slow process, but U Sports is becoming seen and heard more than most can remember. “You listen to the radio, go online, or watch Tim & Sid, and they are all referencing U Sports. There’s a general enthusiasm; we are slowly becoming a part of the conversation.”
Now that the spotlight is being shined on more and more athletes, Brown is focused on one critical component: storytelling. U Sports believes telling a better student athlete story is incredibly important. Finding the stories that should be publicly recognized is what powers the U Sports machine; it’s what will connect athletes to their community, and what U Sports is hoping will demand national attention.