Organizers look to restore lustre to Vanier Cup
Vanier Cup organizers hope that an earlier start and a focused “alumni” theme will restore some of the lustre the national university football championship lost in Hamilton last year with the second-worst attendance in its 52year history.
The Cup game and festival return to Tim Hortons Field in late November, in the second year of a two-year deal with the city.
“To me, it’s about putting the event back on its feet,” says Graham Brown, the CEO of U Sports, which runs inter-university sports in Canada and is operating the Vanier Cup itself, after years of leasing it out to various organizations.
“We’ve sort of put last year behind us, and got our learnings from it. We didn’t put anywhere enough people in the stadium, which I take full responsibility for.”
On the field, last year’s Vanier Cup offered the same level of memorable play that characterized most major 2016 championship finals across the continent, with Laval winning its record ninth title, 31-26 over the Calgary Dinos.
But the game was played in an echo chamber, with only 5,600 tickets sold. This is the first time U Sports has officially announced the official attendance, and it was lower than all but the first Vanier Cup (3,488), when it was still an invitational fundraising event, and then called the Canadian College Bowl.
Only two other Vanier Cup crowds, at Varsity Stadium in 1969 and at the then-Skydome in 1997, have not been into five figures. The three previous (2004, ’05, ’08) in Hamilton, all at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium, drew between
13,000 and 17,000 fans.
“We were late to the game, we were late to the marketing,” Brown said of the 2016 Vanier Cup festival. “And we were taking the game back in house. Would it have been better to leave it at Laval one more year? I can’t argue with that.
“We’ll have a much higher level of presence this year.”
Last year, Brown took over as CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sports in early September, and the very next month the organization focused on rebranding itself as U Sports. Just a few weeks after that, they had to stage their showcase game of the year in a market they hadn’t worked in eight years, handling the details they’d sold to outside promoters for several Novembers.
It was, as many observers suggested at the time, too much, too soon.
But Brown says that this year’s marketing and ticketing strategies have already been set, and contracts for the 2017 event have already been signed with the city, the stadium and title sponsor ArcelorMittal Dofasco.
“And we’re meeting with the Ticats soon,” Brown said. “We didn’t get to the Ticats early enough last year.”
Brown said his organization probably underestimated “the sophistication” of the Hamilton football market. The Ticats, who have a depthfinder into the local football community, can provide specific marketing advice and access to subscribers who are already interested in the sport.
“We have a collection of marketing assets to help drive ticket sales,” said Matt Afinec, the Tiger-Cats’ executive vice-president of business operations citing, among other things, the promotion of Vanier Cup ticket sales at Tiger-Cat games. “Everything that happens at Tim Hortons Field we want to be successful, especially with football.”
Brown says that some of the marketing has been changed and the social media campaign will focus on the “alumni” theme. More tickets, for instance, will be included in ArcelorMittal Dofasco’s sponsorship package in the hopes that their employees, and vast ‘alumni’, will support the game.
All past winners of the game have been invited to this year’s Cup and most of the members of the all-Canadian teams from 1971 — the first year national all-stars were named — have been contacted and about 15 are already committed. Other branches of Canadian university alumni will also likely be involved.
“What will put people in the stadium?” Brown mused rhetorically. “We’re trying to turn it around.”
Laval ’s Etienne Moisan and Jean-Simon Roy head to the podium to accept the Vanier Cup after the game at Tim Hortons Field.