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Growing university basketball in Canada

by Jonathan Still April 5, 2016
Growing university basketball in Canada

Looking at the NCAA March Madness tournament and how it relates to the CIS

Is there a name any more apt than March Madness for the college basketball tournament that occurs every March? It afflicted a former high school teacher of mine, who used to disappear for a few days to watch his beloved Georgetown Hoyas battle it out for the most prestigious prize in NCAA men’s college basketball. It has sometimes left one aspiring sports journalist (who will remain nameless) confined to his couch, drinking all kinds of medicine. And by medicine, I mean beer.

The CIS cannot compete with the juggernaut that is NCAA March Madness. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

The CIS cannot compete with the juggernaut that is NCAA March Madness. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

Attempts at humour aside, it is well and truly one of the most captivating sporting events of the calendar year. This year’s tournament was hyped up to be one of the most unpredictable ever.  For the first time in the history of Division 1 NCAA men’s basketball, No.1 seeds lost seven times in the regular season. The last time top-10 teams lost as many games as they did in 2015-2016, the Soviets were blocking off West Berlin.

Yet even all of that hype and passion does not translate into sustained viewership. According to Yahoo Sports, more people tuned in to CBC’s coverage of the world junior figure skating championships than to TSN’s coverage of the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

Why does that matter? The reason is because I am unable to find any semblance of T.V. audience numbers for CIS basketball anywhere. Because if Canadians are willing and able tune out the Madness, than I can only imagine what the numbers look like for CIS basketball.

The CIS cannot compete with the juggernaut that is NCAA March Madness. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

The CIS cannot compete with the juggernaut that is NCAA March Madness. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

I was recently asked why there is no March Madness for the CIS. In fact, there is. The tournament is called the Final Eight. The only difference: instead of seeding being determined by the NCAA committee, the CIS uses national coaches’ polls. Seeding is determined by head-to-head matchups, strength of schedule, regular season and conference record. All that good stuff. So why doesn’t it get enough eyeballs?

March Madness succeeds because of the sheer volume of the NCAA and brand recognition. Three hundred and fifty one schools play under NCAA Division 1 basketball; 47 play under the CIS. Sixty-eight teams make it to the Madness; eight make it to the Final Eight. Even in alliteration, March Madness takes the cake; Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four. Final Eight isn’t nearly as quotable.

When both casual and knowledgeable Canadian basketball fans watch a NCAA school, they identify the pro player or players that played there. North Carolina? Michael Jordan.  Georgetown? Patrick Ewing. Michigan? The Fab Five. No CIS player has ever played in the NBA. What else does the March Madness brand sell? Upsets. Upsets bring in the fans who bring in the sponsors who bring in the money for coverage. The CIS cannot sell the romanticism of upsets the way the NCAA can. A No. 15 seed knocking off a No. 2 is infinitely more Cinderella-esque than a No. 6 knocking off a No. 3.

So what can the CIS do? First would be hope that a CIS player makes it onto an NBA roster in order to sell the dream to potential recruits that you can stay in Canada and accomplish your goals. Second would be simply to stay the course. As the Raptors continue to do well and Canadian players like Andrew Wiggins inspire a new generation of hoop stars, the game will continue to grow here at home. The ripple effect of a growing talent pool is exposure and sponsorship down the line for the CIS.

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