Eight years ago, Jim Mullin directed one of the most successful Vanier Cups in the history of the U Sports football championship. Since then, the growth of Canadian football has been stagnant.
“We have a number of challenges in front of us. One thing that sticks out for me is that we have not done a good job of telling our story. Given my skill set and experience, that’s the one thing that excites me,” Jim Mullin told the Sheaf in an exclusive interview.
Before taking on roles as a promoter, Mullin worked in the newspaper industry and had broadcast hundreds of games across football and hockey. Prior to joining the media, he earned the Jon Cornish Trophy which is presented to the top Canadian in the American collegiate system.
Now, as the president of Football Canada, Mullin will get the opportunity to help bring Canadian football back to life.
Collaboration across the country
Mullin was the Vancouver director of the 47th Vanier Cup in 2011. The event took place on the Friday before the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup with, for the first time ever, 665,000 people watching on TSN English.
Mullin’s innovative decision was replicated for the 48th Vanier Cup in Toronto, which had a record attendance of 37,098. On television, 502,000 viewers tuned in.
Since these two years of substantial success, exposure for university football has been on the decline.
Last year’s U Sports national semi-final, the Mitchell Bowl, and the Canadian Junior Football League national championship took place on the same day at the same time. Both games featured teams from Saskatoon, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Saskatoon Hilltops. If you were trying to support both clubs, you had to choose which game to watch live.
“Football may be the most siloed game in our country. One group does something in a bubble and another group does something in their own separate bubble,” said Mullin.
Since setting the attendance record at the 48th Vanier Cup, the event has produced an average attendance of 13,999 from 2013 to 2018.
In 2013, viewership dropped 50 percent from the Vanier Cup that Mullin directed in Vancouver just two years prior. That year was the first year of Sportsnet’s broadcast deal with U Sports.
Fewer Canadians watched the game each year thereafter, bottoming out in 2017 when just 168,000 viewers tuned in — a 75 percent drop from 2011. The viewership tally for 2018 was not published.
Since moving the Vanier Cup from Friday on TSN to Saturday on Sportsnet, viewership and attendance dropped significantly.
For Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet, the U Sports experience on the network has been underwhelming.
Mullin suggested all Canadian football stakeholders be on the same page for the betterment of the game.
“We have members of Football Canada, provincial organizations, and then we have groups doing things outside of Football Canada. Some things they’re doing are good for our game, other things require a real examination of what’s going on. We need to get people outside of our organization to get involved with us,” Mullin said. “Football Canada needs to be a crossroads for discussion.”
Mullin noted that John Bower, the new senior manager of communication and technology for U Sports, is a positive development for football and university athletics as a whole.
“It’s a fantastic move by U Sports. He knows where the sport needs to go; he knows how it needs to be promoted and the type of people that need to be involved to get the message out. Hiring Jon Bower is a sign that we’re going in the right direction,” Mullin said.
Mullin feels a responsibility to increase Canada’s football reputation on a global scale.
“The 2018 World Junior Football Championship was a top 10 live stream for CBCsports.ca,” Mullin claimed. “That told us there is a future for Football Canada to showcase our product on bigger and better platforms. We want to get the Canada Cup on TV every year. That’s going to take a lot of work.”
Mullin is optimistic about the potential of this tournament.
“We need to find a way to get that on a platform so Canadians can watch, share and partake in team Canada’s journey,” Mullin said, stressing the importance of “finding partners who will help make that a very successful event.”
Putting international tournaments on accessible platforms should attract more young Canadians to play the game through their high school years, something Mullin says is not happening as efficiently as he would like.
“I would like to find a path through competition that allows kids in flag football to transition to contact football much easier,” Mullin said. “They aren’t doing that right now and it needs to change. Saskatoon is a great example of how to accomplish this.”
This year, Football Saskatchewan collected 13 medals across various national championships — more than any other province. The success of males and female teams across all age groups gives Mullin optimism about hosting events in Saskatoon sometime in the future.
“I would like to see an international world junior tournament in Canada every two years. International teams should come to Canada and play 12-man football. The world needs to see their countries compete,” said Mullin. “I think a place like Saskatoon would be a great host for this sort of thing.”
Mullin says that safety is a high priority for him. He is partnering with researchers through the NeuroProtection program to study safe contact.
The CFL and NFL have not been proactive with their approach to the concussion and head trauma issue in football.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie called the link between head trauma and football players “inconclusive.”
In the NFL, a class-action lawsuit is expected to surpass $1.4 billion in settlement claims for concussion-related compensation for retired players.
According to Mullin, Football Canada is working with USA Football in researching contact and tackling.
“We’re doing research because we want to come up with an answer that ensures we have the safest game possible because football has so much to offer for an individual in a team format,” Mullin claimed.
Mullin’s vision to grow the game while making it safer is a breath of fresh air but he recognizes the work that lies ahead.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Mullin said. “Each step forward is just one of thousands.”
Tanner Michalenko / Sports & Health Editor