How do CIS & NCAA football stack up?

Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz
Amrit Ahluwalia
Amrit Ahluwalia

Andrew Bucholtz

CIS football has a lot to recommend it. As a starting point, there’s the identification with the schools involved. For current students, there’s something to be said for going out to a stadium and watching the same guys you’ve just been discussing German history or Aristotelian philosophy with out on the field making incredible passes, catches and tackles. For alumni, instead of picking a school to follow based on its logo, uniform, tradition or mascot, you have a deep and personal connection to the university you support and the athletes out on the field wearing the school colours from your own time

on campus.

Another selling point is the game itself. The three-down format favoured by CIS football and the CFL leads to bolder offensive gambits and strategies than you’ll see south of the border, where “three yards and a cloud of dust” was almost an omnipresent mantra for many a year. Interestingly, many NFL and NCAA teams have recently adopted strategies explored north of the border, such as the single-back offence that operates on pass-first principles, and their own games have become much more exciting as a result. Still, there’s plenty of tactical creativity and the excitement it generates that’s only found in Canadian football.

There’s something more pure about CIS football. Compared to the highly-commoditized football which is marketed, packaged and sold by the NCAA, full of ESPN, Erin Andrews and a boatload of other television personalities, CIS football seems like a return to a past epoch of real characters, teams and historic rivalries you can discover for yourself instead of having them force-fed to you by mass-media outlets.

NCAA football is great, but it’s rather similar to what you get from professional sports, whereas CIS football is a completely different experience. Most of the guys at the CIS level are real students, dealing with the same academic, financial and personal struggles as the rest of us, rather than the swollen-headed jocks driving Hummers around American schools, playing the big man on campus while filling seats in easy classes they often don’t pass.

There is, of course some overlap between the leagues, but by and large, the characters who inhabit the ranks of CIS football are easier to relate to. It’s still very high-calibre competition; there were 111 players on July’s CFL rosters who got their start in CIS football. Unlike the NCAA, which features an even higher level of competition, that quality comes with real personalities.

Finally, there’s the whole indie appeal of following a sport that’s mostly outside of the consciousness of the mainstream media and the public at large. Almost every sports fan in North America knows all about Tim Tebow, but there’s only a selected few who have heard of Dan Brannagan or Josh Sacobie.

There’s a unique thrill found in having your own corner of the sporting world, filled with fellow admirers of the game but unspoiled by the masses. It gives you that special sense of being in the know, as anyone can go on about Ohio State and USC, but discussing Queen’s and Laurier takes more specialized knowledge and can be much more satisfying. CIS players and schools may not have the NCAA’s hype, following or star status, but it’s possible that’s for the best.

Amrit Ahluwalia

The strength of NCAA football is a product of its territory.

For a brand to be considered good, it needs to be popular – which comes naturally for football in the United States. Many have seen the movie, the television show or read the book “Friday Night Lights,” which gives a seemlingly surreal look at how high school football is treated. It’s not a far cry from the truth. The passion displayed by the followers of university football is even more intense.

University sport in the U.S. is wildly popular and has been for decades. This popularity means huge amounts of money are poured into the development of the sport at the university level and the grassroots level, creating an increasingly strong class of youth players. By the time these players reach the NCAA, they already have a solid foundation upon which to base their product. With this quality product comes even more popularity from students, alumni and your everyday Joe (or Jane), leading to more television deals and even more popularity. It’s a circle — the popularity leads to revenue, which leads to strengthening of the sport, which leads to further popularity.

The NCAA’s branding has also been successful, which adds to its off-the-field popularity. I can say with confidence that I’m a Longhorns fan and have been for years. While walking around Queen’s campus, you can pick off the logos of a variety of other NCAA Division I schools like Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan, but you rarely see the stylized Q of the Gaels. There’s a level of branding in the NCAA that the CIS couldn’t dream of.

University sport is prioritized far higher in the U.S. than it is in Canada. The calibre of the game is so close to that of the professional leagues that it’s easy to forget that these are folks our age who go to class and do other ‘student stuff’ just like we do. But, as a result of the revenue that this love for sport — in particular, football — generates, the NCAA can afford to put forth a product that the CIS could never dream of achieving.

The existence of rivalry trophies in the NCAA, such as the Little Brown Jug (between the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan), the Old Brass Spittoon (between Indiana University and Michigan State University), the Egg Bowl (between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University), the War Canoe Trophy (between the University of Florida and the University of Miami), the Bayou Bucket (between the University of Houston and Rice University) and the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk (between the University of Illinois and Northwestern University), serve the purpose of making regular season games between rivals more exciting, which increases the viewership and revenue for the competing teams before playoffs even begin. Neither team has to be particularly successful in order to garner huge amounts of support and money from the game. A rivalry trophy is reason enough to watch.

Most students at Queen’s can’t even be bothered to sit through an entire football game, even when tickets are free. Most American university football games, you need to pay to get into regular season games. That is, when tickets aren’t sold out.

It takes fans to make a sport more popular, so it’s on us to make the CIS product better.

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