UBC leading charge to rethink varsity sport: university presidents in Canada West push for high performance division

The University of British Columbia has taken the reins in an initiative amongst Canada West universities to reconsider how the conference divides its 16 teams.

Last April, UBC announced it would no longer seek membership into the National Collegiate Athletic Association and would remain a member of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The school felt it could be at the forefront of changing Canada’s university athletics.

According to Canadian University Press, UBC president Stephen Toope “cited the CIS’s willingness to reform on a variety of fronts, including proposed changes to governance and tiering, as a reason to stay within the organization.”

His desire for change was backed by fellow university presidents from within the conference.

A letter signed by Toope and four other presidents was sent to the Canada West administration around the same time as UBC’s announcement. It not only informed the conference of UBC’s decision to remain in Canada, but also stated a need for change in the conference’s competitive structure, which included a demand for tiering — though it wasn’t made clear what exactly was meant by tiering.

When the Canada West was formed in 1971, it consisted of UBC and the universities of Alberta, Calgary, Lethbridge, Saskatchewan and Victoria. Over the last 14 years, the number has increased to 16 member schools, with 14 currently competing and the University of Northern British Columbia and Mount Royal University scheduled to begin competition in the fall of 2012.

Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton recently submitted an application to join the conference but, as concern amongst Canada West schools grows over the quality of competition within the conference, the league is reluctant to accept new members.

According to Richard Price, the senior advisor to Toope, many schools are concerned that the skill-level of the average Canada West athlete has decreased as the number of roster spots within the conference has increased, and that too many Canadian student-athletes are leaving to play higher quality sport in the NCAA as opposed to staying in Canada.

One “concern is that there has been the dilution of the talent level and that’s simply because of the increased numbers. There are simply more teams and more kids have to fill out those teams,” said Price over the phone from Vancouver. “The continuing exodus of student athletes to the NCAA greatly magnifies that problem, and that problem has been getting worse and worse.”

To add to this, in certain sports where the number of teams competing is very high, the conference has divided regionally. In men’s and women’s basketball, for example, the Prairie division consists of schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba while the Pacific division consists of schools in British Columbia. The two divisions most often play within their own regions, rarely crossing over to compete against each other.

For schools like UBC and Victoria, this means playing predominantly smaller schools within British Columbia. For schools in the Prairie division, it means not playing often more competitive teams from UBC and Victoria.

“We’re not even in the same division as our traditional rivals: Saskatchewan, Calgary, Alberta,” said Price. ”We like those traditional rivalries. They generate the most fan interest and we’ve always had excellent competition.”

The Canada West’s response to these concerns was to form a committee of university presidents and athletic directors from schools throughout the league. The committee was tasked with finding new ways to divide or tier the conference’s 16 teams and to make it “more attractive to top Canadian student-athletes to stay in Canada rather than go to the NCAA,” said Price.

Currently, presidents from the universities of Trinity Western, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Lethbridge sit alongside Toope on the committee. The athletic directors are from the universities of Manitoba, Regina, Alberta and Victoria, as well as Thompson Rivers University.

The committee, also referred to as the Canada West Task Force, released its first preliminary report at the conference’s most recent meeting Feb. 7-8 in Calgary, Alta.

The proposal no longer focuses on the language of tiering but on the idea of a “sport by sport consideration of a high performance division,” said Price.

This means that rather than following a system much like the NCAA in which different schools are declared division one, two or three based on their size and their ability to offer scholarships, the Canada West would allow each school to select which sport or sports they want to perform in a more elite division of competition.

“One school may be committed to high performance competition in basketball and to a more recreational level of competition in hockey,” wrote the University of Saskatchewan President Peter MacKinnon in an email to the Sheaf.

In order to classify as a high performance team, added Price, the team would have “to make the full commitment to full-ride scholarships, full-time head and assistant coaches, integrated sports medicine” or whatever else the Canada West deems necessary.

“The interesting thing about the proposal and the principles that exist in the preliminary report is that all the members of the Task Force — big schools, small schools, newer schools and older schools — have all embraced this approach,” said Price.

“Personally, I favour an approach that sees universities compete according to their levels of commitment to particular sports,” wrote MacKinnon. “The Canada West Task Force is simply trying to develop sensible ways of preserving historical patterns of competition to the extent possible while accommodating newer institutions that may wish to compete in one or two sports, or in several.”

The committee is currently waiting for feedback from the Canada West membership in order to refine its proposal and, eventually, take it to the CIS to see if the system could be implemented nation-wide.


Photo: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf