The Vanier Cup: Canada’s Championship Challenge
There is just something about crowning a champion. The anticipation. The excitement. The culmination in what was a great season. Sometimes it’s the crowning of a juggernaut. Sometimes the underdog blows away all expectations. Any way you slice it, getting to see that championship team hold the trophy high above their heads is a treat.
U Sports, the governing body for university sports in Canada, as struggled with their football championship game, the Vanier Cup, in recent years. The 53rd edition of the Vanier Cup was played on November 25, 2017 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, home of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The crowd on hand was treated to a meeting of two powerhouse teams with the Western Mustangs out of London, Ontario, solidly defeating Quebec City’s perennial championship team, the Laval Rouge et Or.
The Vanier Cup has traditionally been a neutral site game, which has become a bit of an issue. This year’s edition of the championship game saw a crowd of just over 10,700 in the stadium; not a fantastic attendance mark, but up from a crowd of just over 8,000 the previous year at the same venue. The challenge for organizers is the increasingly regional nature of the game. A boon for this year’s game was an Ontario team participating. Unfortunately this is not known until the week before the game. The 52nd edition, the lowest attended game, saw the Laval Rouge et Or take on the Calgary Dinos. No Ontario team … no big crowd.
In previous years, the Vanier Cup has also been matched up with the Grey Cup, many times playing in the same venue. The best attended Vanier Cup was held in Toronto the day before the 100th Grey Cup. It also saw the nearby McMaster Marauders take place.
This year’s Vanier Cup was fairly well put together. The title sponsor, ArcelorMittal Dofasco, provided fans with toques, mittens, and hand warming packets. Even those fans not prepared for the weather could be prepared for the weather. The halftime performance by Canada’s Hardest Working Band, The Trews, was also great. Those in attendance, save for the Laval faithful who saw their team go down in defeat, were pleased with the event and how it was put together. Parking for Tim Hortons Field is always an issue, but a smaller crowd than what the stadium normally sees helped in that department.
However, it is fairly clear that a more comprehensive plan for the Vanier Cup going forward needs to happen. Whether it is a partnership once again with the CFL to marry the Vanier Cup and the Grey Cup, or possibly abandoning the neutral site concept, the attendance figures for the championship game are trending down, especially in Ontario. Perhaps co-promoting the Vanier and Grey Cups once again is the way to go. The Vanier can then get exposure in markets where it traditionally has not gone. The game has been dominated by Toronto and Hamilton, being played exclusively in Toronto up until 2005. Since then it has been to British Columbia and Saskatchewan each one time, and Quebec 5 times.
The biggest issue for changes in the Vanier format, however, may be the tight schedule. The OUA, one of the four conferences that comprise U Sports, already begins its season in August. The late November or early December dates mean that weather is most assuredly a factor. Also, U Sports competition across all sports wraps up in the first week of December so that students can prepare for exams.
Finally, the dominance of a handful of programs can be considered an issue for the Vanier. Laval has appeared in 10 of the last 15 Vanier Cups, winning 8. Calgary has appeared in four as well as Saskatchewan. It is not inconceivable to consider that fatigue for the same programs is not helping the big game.
The Vanier Cup remains a great experience and the struggles that U Sports football has seen at a national level can be seen in its championship game. Where the game goes from here is a significant question. However, if U Sports and the four conferences feel that they can plod along the same course, then the best days of the Vanier Cup are assuredly behind them.