Playing in the bigs - Macleans.ca

Playing in the bigs

Canadian universities are being offered entry into the NCAA. But should they take the opportunity?

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Every year hundreds of athletes across this country reject offers from Canadian universities and colleges to pursue a dream: a U.S. sports scholarship. Those who have flown south and flourished include golfer Mike Weir, soccer sensation Christine Sinclair, and two-time National Basketball Association MVP Steve Nash. They all sharpened their skills in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the American college sports system, whose programs are spoiled with an abundance of resources. And soon, Canadian student athletes may be able to play in the NCAA without ever leaving home.

Last January, NCAA officials approved a 10-year pilot project, aimed at adding international schools to the league’s ranks. The move comes less than two years after UBC athletic director Bob Philip began lobbying the NCAA, arguing that Canadian schools should be allowed to join. “We see so many athletes going to the States every year that we felt Canadian schools should be doing more to try and offer opportunities for Canadian students to play in Canada,” says Philip. Other schools, including the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University, have also expressed an interest in having some of their teams compete in the NCAA.

Sports fanatics will, however, have to wait a while yet to watch Canadian teams in the granddaddy of U.S. college sports, the New Year’s Day football bowl games. These feature powerhouses such as the University of Texas and Ohio State University, whose annual sports budgets exceed US$100 million. Going head-to-head in big money sports like football could be years—if not decades—away. Instead, Philip sees joining the NCAA as a way of allowing UBC to play competitively in other sports where the school would immediately succeed.

“There is a bit of a misnomer because Canadian university sport kind of flies under the radar when compared to U.S. college sports, and I think a lot of people just assume that they are way better than we are in everything,” says Philip. “That may be the case in top Division I basketball and football, but it is not the case in every sport.” Philip notes that UBC’s swimming team would rank in the NCAA’s top 10, and that its men’s volleyball could dominate. “We’re in the top four in Canada, but we beat the No. 4 team in the NCAA in Hawaii two games straight.”

And even in the big-name, big-money college sports, Canadian squads won’t necessarily be taken behind the woodshed and pummelled. In September 2006, the Carleton University basketball team played a series of exhibition games against Division I squads La Salle University and the University of Louisville. They beat La Salle and lost by only one point to Louisville, a team that was ranked sixth in its bracket at last year’s NCAA March Madness tournament. Two years ago, UBC won its second National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)Region I baseball championship (the NAIA is an association of smaller U.S. colleges; a kind of junior NCAA). And 10 UBC baseball players have been drafted by Major League Baseball teams, including Colorado Rockies ace Jeff Francis, who went in the first round five years ago.

The funds available to attract student athletes to stay—and play—in Canada are also becoming more plentiful. According to Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), the governing body of university sport in Canada, during the course of the 2005-06 academic year CIS schools doled out more than $6 million in athletic award money. Additionally, more than $6.1 million was given out in other award categories. That’s an increase of nearly $4 million since 2002-03, and that number is expected to grow substantially in the upcoming years. “About one out of every two student athletes in Canada is receiving financial support,” says CIS chief executive officer Marg McGregor. Although Canadian scholarship rules prohibit institutions from paying for room, board and books, as permitted in the NCAA, schools in all provinces, except for Ontario, can cover tuition and compulsory fees for students who maintain an academic average of 65 per cent or above. “Even without books and accommodation being paid for, you are still getting great value in Canada,” says McGregor.

But McGregor wants to keep the NCAA out of Canada. “Having a Canadian institution being a member of the NCAA sends the completely wrong message that bigger is better and that Americans are better than Canadians.” She also points out that from a student perspective, the NCAA experience isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. “Seven out of 10 Canadians who go south to play basketball return after one year,” she says. “That is a very clear indication that too often expectations exceed reality.” Dick White, the University of Regina’s athletic director, agrees with McGregor and adds that Canadians have a skewed idea of the entire NCAA organization. “We all look at the NCAA and we think that it’s Michigan versus Notre Dame in stadiums with 100,000,” says White. “But we only see a very narrow band of the entire system, and the perception is that everything is rosy south of the border. That’s not necessarily true.”

Another mistaken view about the U.S.: the notion that collegiate sports, especially successful football and basketball programs, can deliver windfalls of cash to their respective institutions. The truth is quite the contrary. The NCAA estimates that college sports generate more than $4 billion a year from ticket sales, broadcasters and sponsors, but only a handful of schools turn a profit. At the annual NCAA convention in Orlando last January, association president Myles Brand said that he believes that fewer than 10 out of more than 1,000 college athletic programs across the U.S. make money or break even. Sports are a big money-maker, but an even bigger cost centre.

That fact is forcing some U.S. colleges to reconsider their entire sports programs. For Birmingham-Southern College, a small liberal arts school in Alabama, it meant walking away from the business of sport altogether. Birmingham used to hand out 116 full athletic scholarships a year, at around US$30,000 a shot. But last year, the board of trustees voted to change the way it spends its money, and eliminate all of its athletic scholarships. It pulled itself from the prestigious NCAA Division I level to Division III, where students don’t receive a dime to play.

Philip is confident, however, that UBC’s sports budget wouldn’t rise significantly if the school joins the NCAA. He says that the move might even save money. “Our baseball team goes to Scottsdale and L.A. to play and it doesn’t cost as much to go there as it does to go to Winnipeg or Regina, because they’re higher density routes.”

Yet even if the NCAA does admit a few Canadian universities, there is still no guarantee that students will flock to NCAA’s new northern members. “The mentality is that almost everyone wants to go to the U.S.,” says Brian Smith, president of University Prospects, a sports recruitment agency for student athletes. His company has placed 400 Canadian student athletes at U.S. universities since 1999, with total scholarships valued at more than $27 million. Smith estimates that 95 per cent of Canadians who request his company’s services go to the U.S. because the level of assistance, training and exposure far outweigh what can be found at home. He also points out that not many student athletes know about the scholarship opportunities available in Canada, and in any case says that offers from American schools simply blow away anything available at home.

“None of my athletes have received any outstanding amount of assistance here in Ontario because the money is just not the same as in the States,” says Smith. But he admits that if the NCAA ever came to Canada it would probably open the door for more athletes to stay, though it is difficult to predict how many would.

As to how many universities are looking south, we’ll find out in the new year—when Canadian schools are expected to be able to submit formal applications to the NCAA.

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