Tuesday, 2 June 2020

A Ship With No Captain

If you had asked me, after spending two consecutive years at the U SPORTS National Women's Hockey Championship, who Graham Brown was, I wouldn't have known. If you had asked me who the CEO of U SPORTS is, I wouldn't have known. What makes this rather crazy is that Graham Brown, the man pictured to the left, is the CEO of U SPORTS, and has held that position since 2015 until today when the announcement was made that U SPORTS has parted ways with Brown following a long suspension of the CEO. The fact that I had no idea who he was after watching U SPORTS gold medals handed out in 2018 should be a little disturbing for the U SPORTS crowd because you would think that one of the highest-ranking members of the organization would factor into any and all award ceremonies.

Instead, it was announced today that U SPORTS will no longer have Brown as the Chief Executive Officer of the governing body of Canadian university athletics, replacing him for the interim with Dick White, another person who I couldn't identify if he were standing right next to me. White, for his part, was previously the athletic director at the University of Regina so he's got that going for him, he's still an unknown to me.

As far as I can tell, the only major thing that Brown did was to rebrand the CIS/SIC names under the singular U SPORTS name in his five years at the post. I know there were likely other, smaller things he and his team did, but usually CEOs want to leave a legacy of successes behind, right?

Among the failures or complete misses during his tenure were major television deals with CBC and Sportsnet that never materialized or were allowed to end without greater importance being placed on visibility of the talented athletes attending the Canadian universities. The digital platforms where one can see U SPORTS athletes are strong, but there's a complete lack of consistency between schools when it comes to quality of those broadcasts. The infusions of money and resources to help athletes and programs maintain the high quality we see at the U SPORTS level, in addition to gaining that better visibility, never seemed to materialize.

Look, I'm not here to dance on the guy's grave, but I have a question.

According to his history, Brown came to U SPORTS from Rugby Canada and was the Executive Director of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association from 1998 to 2002. He was a founding member of the University of Windsor rugby program in 1989, and also played varsity basketball and football with the Lancers. His statement, in 2015 upon being hired, read,
"My goal is to make U SPORTS more relevant in a crowded Canadian sport marketplace. I believe interuniversity sport, so rich in tradition rivalry, has tremendous potential for growth in Canada. I can't wait to help reintroduce the stories of our amazing student athletes to Canadian sports fans."
That statement, in my opinion, is entirely correct, so what the heck happened in the execution of that belief? Why does U SPORTS not get the same recognition in Canada as the NCAA gets in the US? Why do we seem to be moving backwards in some sports when it comes to their coverage and visibility? Why are some athletes who are destined for Olympic teams not known as household names across this land?

In 2018, Brown called out the CRTC and Canadian media for downsizing the coverage provided. And while he's right that the loss of local coverage has hurt the exposure of U SPORTS programs, he also did nothing to rectify that problem or stepping in with his U SPORTS platform to fill the void. With all of the great podcasts, radio, and campus newspaper coverage that are produced about U SPORTS, you'd think that U SPORTS would have wanted to collect all of this in one central location for fans and media alike, right?

Instead, there were crickets following the condemnation of the media. At a time when the University of Manitoba had regular radio coverage of the eventual national champion women's hockey program and regular newspaper coverage of the team in The Manitoban, he didn't need to look far to find passionate people talking about U SPORTS. Other schools in western Canada are the same, and it seems the passion for our local teams is only growing as more and more podcasts and coverage is being generated. Like most other opportunities, this was a huge miss for U SPORTS.

What has me questioning the leadership that Brown was offering comes in a paragraph from that same article. It reads,
There are alternatives out there, of course, with online news organizations, community blogs and forums and more. And there are a lot of benefits to digital media; I saw that myself in six years covering Canadian sports for Yahoo Canada. Digital indeed offers the flexibility to cover interesting stories from anywhere. But it has drawbacks, especially when it comes to local coverage; digital media isn't typically as tied to place, and doesn't typically cover community sports with the same depth as local papers and television stations. And while organizations like U SPORTS are investing heavily in their own digital media content, Brown says that won’t ever be enough to compensate for the traditional media losses and the many great stories community journalists provided on community sports.
Look, I can't deny that I'd love a larger platform for the work I've done and will do, and I'm sure every other journalist at a campus newspaper and radio host at a campus radio station would like that as well. But to see the author, Mr. Andrew Bucholtz, summarily dismiss digital media as its growth was swelling exponentially in 2018 through to today is as unfathomable as it is misinformed on the trends in journalism. Why does U SPORTS feel it's better to be stuck in the stone age than the information age? Is this the worst pivot ever for a brand that touted its "digital experience" and "more story-oriented content" in its own rebranding statement?

There was a great article published by The Charlatan, Carleton's student newspaper, that was co-authored by Stuart Miller-Davis, Timothy Austen and Michael Sun that ripped open the lack of execution by U SPORTS in obtaining mass media coverage and the failures of standardizing digital broadcasts. Their look into how to make broadcasting U SPORTS better is a very good read, and I have to say that U SPORTS now has an agreement with CBC Sports' digital side to broadcast everything. But the fact that it took this long to get something like that in place just speaks volumes on how far the U SPORTS organization is when it comes to identifying trends in the sports marketplace.

U SPORTS signed a deal with International Management Group in June 2018, but what has come of that? In all honesty, I can't think of one benefit I've seen for our local athletes, so what exactly is IMG doing for U SPORTS? If I can't name a single thing, it's clearly not visible how this relationship has helped any of the 56 member schools of U SPORTS, and I'm not sure why this relationship hasn't been pushed hard to try and secure funding and resources for schools.

All of this comes back to one guy who was signing the deals for U SPORTS, and that's Graham Brown. As a person, I'm sure Mr. Brown is a great guy, an outstanding family man, and an upstanding member of the community. This isn't an attack on his character whatsoever, and I want to make this clear. I happen to like U SPORTS athletic events, and I'm a big believer in the work being done to develop high-quality athletes in this country.

My problem is that I just can't put a finger on anything that Brown signed off on that actually made things better for athletes in his five years at the helm. If that's the impetus for the change, good on the U SPORTS Board of Directors for making the change because it's hard to fathom moving forward while stuck in what seems to be a holding pattern. Sometimes, a change is good, but we need someone who will really challenge the old ways of doing things with bright, new ideas that can help push U SPORTS into the spotlight a few times per week.

Support your local university athletes, folks. That's the best message I have for you.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


shootler said...

wasnt the national womens final suppose to be on sportsnet last season?

Teebz said...

Unfortunately, no, Shootler. All games were being broadcast via the CBCSports App and the CBCSports.ca websites. There was no network TV coverage whatsoever of both men's and women's hockey.