Four years ago, the governing body of university sport in Canada announced that it would undergo a rebranding. Formerly known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), CIS became U SPORTS. Along with the change in name, brand, logo, and website, U SPORTS wanted to “create a massive change in the way Canadians see university sports in the digital era.”
Since that rebranding in 2016, U SPORTS has looked to grow the popularity of university sport in Canada. Whether that be through an upgraded social media presence or an increase in coverage of national championship events, the governing body already had a lot on its plate before COVID-19 began disrupting the way we live.
U SPORTS directs 56 member universities, four regional conferences and is responsible for governing 21 national championship events across 12 different sports that take place during the academic year. According to the 2019-20 annual report, 14,249 student-athletes compete across the four conferences.
COVID-19 and university sport in Canada
The Mount Royal Cougars women’s hockey team were among the first to feel the turmoil that the pandemic has caused. The team had just completed an outstanding playoff run where they won the Canada West silver medal, and secured a spot in the national championship tournament, which started on March 12, 2020, in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Anna Purschke, a then fourth-year business student at Mount Royal, and forward for the Cougars, was one of the top players in the Canada West conference in the 2019-20 season. The Sherwood Park native was named a second-team all-star after leading her team in scoring with 11 goals and 19 points.
Entering the championship tournament on March 12, 2020, seeded seventh out of eight teams, the Cougars were matched up with the number two seed and Ontario University Sport (OUA) champion University of Toronto Varsity Blues. The Cougars continued their magical playoff run, knocking off the Varsity Blues 2-1 in overtime as the world around them changed forever.
“A couple of hours after that game, our coach all of a sudden called a team meeting,” Purschke said. “We weren’t sure what was going on, and he told us that Hockey Canada was pulling the refs from the tournament and we couldn’t continue.”
Only two games of the nine scheduled were completed in the national championship, as only one other game was played after the Cougars and Varsity Blues faced-off.
“There were definitely a lot of tears. People were pretty upset, and I think we all felt a mix of emotions,” Purschke said. “We were a bit confused why we couldn’t finish if we were allowed to start.”
However, hockey wasn’t the only sport affected. Both the men’s and women’s volleyball national championships suffered as the first wave of cancellations hit North American sports in March 2020. Rocky Olfert, the managing director of the Canada West conference since 2015, with a nearly 20-year career in university sport, was preparing to host the championships at the University of Manitoba and University of Calgary.
“It put everything in a state of flux for us, wondering what would happen with those championships,” Olfert said. “Initially, we thought about the impact this will have over the next couple of months, and we hoped things would return to normal by mid-summer and we can resume with our sports. But as things unfolded, we started to realize this is a lot more serious than we initially anticipated.”
The COVID-19 pandemic started to infiltrate day-to-day lives, including the announcement to postpone the 2019-20 NBA regular season after multiple positive tests on March 11, 2020.
Olfert said, “personally, I’ll never forget where I was when the NBA cancelled their season and the new level it took things to.”
The lost season
Realizing the severity of the pandemic, U SPORTS has also had to change course for the 2020-21 season.
On Oct. 15, 2020, U SPORTS and two of their member conferences, Ontario University Sport (OUA) and Canada West (CW), announced the cancellation of all championship events. Following suit, Atlantic University Sport (AUS) announced its season’s cancellation on Nov. 25, 2020.
Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) held out hope before finally announcing its cancellations on Feb. 2, 2021.
These announcements came as a surprise to many of the athletes who were hoping for some type of action in 2021.
“I’ll be honest, we were a bit blindsided,” said Purschke. “The decision was supposed to be made at the beginning of October, but it was pushed back to November. Then five days later, we got an email from the athletic director saying the decision was made to cancel the season.”
Following all of the various cancellations, student-athletes in Canada realized that they only have a limited time to compete for their schools at the country’s highest level of post-secondary sport, as each athlete has only five years of eligibility to play while completing their degrees.
For now, fifth-year athletes like Purschke have many questions about their future and if they will get the chance to finish their university sporting careers. However, in the cancelled season, athletes will retain all eligibility, but some may not get the chance to use the extra year if they graduate.
“Obviously, all the fifth years would love to come back and finish off what we started, but it’s not practical for everyone,” Purshcke said. “You never know if this is going to continue, and there won’t be a season next year, and if you change your plans around coming back, then you’ll be stuck in the same spot.”
U SPORTS has seen student-athletes react differently to the cancellations, some players are taking the chance to play overseas professionally with the ability to return to their schools once competition returns, while several students are riding it out in hopes of seeing some sort of action in 2021, and others have decided to call it quits, finishing both their degrees and athletic careers.
“The biggest thing for us has been the impact on student-athletes,” said Olfert. “If you’re a fourth or fifth-year student, you have to make a decision to graduate or hold off to try and play another year, and that puts them in a difficult spot.”
For Purschke, she said Cougars’ head coach Scott Rivett has handled the situation well. “There’s no pressure to make a decision now, which has been super helpful,” she said.
Financial impact on sports
IBISWorld anticipates that the sports industry will experience a revenue decline of 6 per cent in 2020. The study also finds that the sports industry “will likely be one of the slowest sectors to return to full operational capacity.”
For an organization such as U SPORTS, which has seen an increase in engagement, it is difficult to build upon that progress with no live sports action to share.
U SPORTS estimated that across its social media accounts, it reached a cumulative audience of 3.4 billion people in its most recent annual report. In addition, they received a boost in followers over the course of 2019-20. Their Instagram received the biggest boost, with a 24 per cent increase, Twitter was right behind with a 23 per cent increase, and Facebook, while lower, still increased its followers by 11 per cent.
The organization’s social media wasn’t the only way U SPORTS improved digital engagement with its brand. Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, USPORTS.ca received 5.3 million page views.
When asked how U SPORTS will cope with the decline in loss of audience and sponsorship, John Bower, the director of marketing and communications, said: “Like many sports organizations in Canada, U SPORTS has faced a number of challenges as a result of the pandemic – including the cancellation of all national championships for the 2020-21 season, and the revision of several operational policies affecting student-athletes, such as recruiting, eligibility, academic requirements and athletic financial awards.”
Bower also addressed U SPORTS plan for the new year.
“We look forward to the launch of new national initiatives in 2021, in preparation for an eventual safe return to play across the country.”
U SPORTS, along with every other sports organization in Canada, will be facing some sort of financial impact and possible long-term effects due to COVID-19.
While U SPORTS is unable to comment on its finances to the public, the approach to facing the challenges of lost sanctioned university sports programming falls under the members’ and conferences’ jurisdiction.
“[The impact of COVID-19] is going to vary from member to member and what their own financial model looks like,” said Olfert. “I know administrators have tough decisions to make as they look at their budgets and funding models. There is going to be a lot of hard work for our members to do additional fundraising and keep their sponsorships.”
Per the U SPORTS policies and procedures (last updated in August 2019), each member university is required to pay a basic fee ($13,367.34 as of 2019-20), including a sport participation fee for each sport that member participates in, a travel pool fee, a coaches association/sport technical subcommittee fee and an electronic branding fee.
In 2020, U SPORTS generated $5,187,294 in revenue, $1,611,080 of which comes from the membership fees from each of the 56 involved universities. The rest of its revenue comes from a combination of finances generated through participation in International University Sports Federation (FISU) events, funding, events and competitions, marketing and other revenue streams.
With member fees being a significant source of U SPORTS’ revenue, David Finch, marketing professor and the associate director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University, thinks the cancellation of the 2020-21 season will impact the way U SPORTS operates financially.
“The economic model of U SPORTS is going to fundamentally change,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a pay-to-play model and you’re going to see a lot of the core funding that historically has come from institutions go away.”
Finch has insight into the issue as he is also a founding partner of the T1 Agency, the largest sports and sponsorship marketing agency in Canada.
Transitioning to a pay-to-play model would be a dramatic shift for post-secondary sport in Canada. Student-athletes would most likely be required to cover the full cost of travel, facilities, and U SPORTS membership fees themselves.
Norman O’Reilly, a professor and director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph, O’Reilly, is also one of the leading scholars in the business of sports. He called the COVID-19 pandemic a “disaster” not only for U SPORTS but for all of sport in Canada.
“About 40 per cent of the money that Canadian corporations spend on sport sponsorship has been cut,” he said. “Outside of live entertainment, sports and events has been the hardest hit industry.”
O’Reilly doesn’t quite see the U SPORTS model changing as drastically as Finch because of the scholarship opportunities presented for student-athletes at Canadian universities.
Athletic financial awards
Despite the financial hit sport has taken, student-athletes have stayed in class across the country with the ability to continue earning U SPORTS Athletic Financial Awards (AFAs) to help with the cost of their studies.
AFAs for student-athletes in Canada work quite differently from the “full-rides” that many National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes receive south of the border. U SPORTS athletes don’t only have to perform on the field to receive an AFA, but also in the classroom.
An example of this comes from Ryerson University’s student newspaper, The Eyeopener, where reporter Will Baldwin writes: “The only way a [Ryerson] Ram qualifies for a scholarship from the school is if they maintain an average of 70 per cent or the equivalent grade point average of the school’s conference—(OUA)—rules. And, even if every Ram on each of the various varsity teams meets that average requirement, the conference has a cap which specifies schools are only allowed to reward 70 per cent of the roster.”
The guidelines set out by U SPORTS itself for athletes to receive AFAs work a little differently; along with being eligible to compete, first-year athletes must have a minimum 80 per cent average or equivalent GPA on their courses used to determine their university admission. For second-year or later athletes, that average drops to 65 per cent.
U SPORTS’ policies and procedures state that a student-athlete’s AFAs “ may not aggregate to more than the value of tuition and compulsory fees of the student-athlete.”
This means that it is possible for student-athletes to get their tuition and mandatory fees paid for. This is the general rule set imposed by U SPORTS, but each conference and member university can impose even stricter guidelines that limit their own AFAs.
In the OUA, universities are restricted to offering a maximum of $4,500 per year to their student-athletes.
Despite losing their national championships and regular-season competitions, a big win for U SPORTS in the lost year is the ability to continue offering AFAs and helping its student-athletes pursue a post-secondary education.
“[Scholarships are] a game-changer,” said O’Reilly. “Athletes are getting paid advantages. At some schools, it might be less than others, but the universities are investing, and it might not be ten grand a year, but it helps with tuition.”
What’s next for university sport in Canada?
WIth no competition right now, O’Reilly thinks U SPORTS can still take a step forward in promoting the athletes and make sports more of an “experience” at the university level.
“I think the reality is we’ve just never celebrated [university] sport. We haven’t really promoted it. It’s not a big part of the student experience,” he said. “U SPORTS has done better [in promoting its athletes] but people don’t follow the leagues, they follow the players and the teams. So empowering the athletes, I think that’s the way to go.”
So far, U SPORTS said it has taken the opportunity that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented them to improve the student-athlete experience across the country.
“This season, U SPORTS is working with the conferences and members on initiatives that have a direct benefit and are in the best interests of student-athletes. This includes modifications to policies surrounding Athletic Financial Awards and Eligibility,” the organization said in a statement. “We are also offering educational opportunities such as webinars to the membership in the areas of health and safety, return to play etc.”
In the Canada West, member universities have all been approaching the 2020-21 academic year differently. “Overall with the restrictions, it has made everything from a competition standpoint very difficult,” said Olfert. “It’s really forced our members and coaches to think creatively about how to keep the athletes engaged.”
Leor Magalnik, the engagement & events co-ordinator for Mount Royal University’s Cougars’ athletic department, who has worked with the Cougars athletics since 2018, believes they have adjusted their efforts post-shutdown to emphasize what they can do on their digital and social media platforms.
“Pre-pandemic, we primarily focused on in-person engagement while supplementing that with social media,” he said. “However, with the pandemic, we have entirely shifted our focus to what we can do digitally.”
The Cougars successfully rolled out their “Cougar Night” over social media in June 2020, highlighting their top athletes to the community in an event usually reserved for athletes and Cougars’ staff members, along with video check-ins with their teams who continue to safely practice.
“We are definitely trying to maintain the success that was built up before the pandemic,” Magalnik said. “I do believe that U SPORTS and the schools and institutions will be able to [maintain that success], people want to have that content, and they miss the sports that they used to attend.”
Magalnik thinks that the shutdown might even offer U SPORTS and universities a chance to grow their engagement levels because the lack of live events will drive fans to the social and digital channels that the league and schools are working so hard on.
For the Mount Royal Cougars and every other U SPORTS member university, the eventual return to play will offer a light at the end of the tunnel of uncertainty that COVID-19 has thrown onto amateur athletics across the country.