By Donnovan Bennett - Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
It was announced today that the Vanier Cup is heading back to Hamilton for the next two years. The commitment to and by the City of Hamilton will propel CIS forward when it comes to hosting elite championship events.
I've long believed that per capita no Canadian city produces more elite amateur football players than the greater Hamilton area. In every Vanier Cup, at every All-Canadian gala, every CFL draft, the Golden Horseshoe is well represented.
If you've been to a Vanier Cup, you know it's more than just a title game. It's a week-long celebration of amateur football in our country. With the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in town and a number of future, current and past great players in the area, there's no better place to host that party than Steeltown.
Hamilton isn't new to the Vanier. In 2004, after a 39-year run in Toronto, Hamilton stepped up as only the second city to host the event. The national championship has been held there three times with moderate success. One of the greatest Vaniers ever was at the now defunct Ivor Wynne Stadium, when Laurier upset Saskatchewan on a last-second field goal in 2005.
Those three previous occasions at Ivor Wynne averaged just under 15,000 in attendance. That's a nice base to start from, but this is a new day for both CIS and the city that makes this marriage especially advantageous.
It could be argued that Hamilton is in a much better place these days to host the Vanier. A big part of that is the university football program that calls the city home. McMaster was a strong program in the 2000s under Greg Marshall. They've become even more of a national powerhouse since the last staging of the VC in Hamilton in 2008. Stef Ptaszek – the offensive coordinator with the 2005 Laurier championship team - has built off of the foundation that Marshall established, which has made the Marauders one of the most stable football organizations in the country. In recent years they've won their first national title (2011) and reached three national finals in four seasons from 2011 to 2014. Of the six or seven top-tier programs that will likely feature in the next two Vaniers, McMaster is among them.
On top of that, former NBA GM Glen Grunwald coming on board as Mac's athletic director gives the school's athletics department a valuable resource in operating at a professional standard.
Why does all of that matter? Because in this day and age you need institutional support to make events like this successful. There's no better example of this than how Laval's strong infrastructure and partners have worked together to make the Vaniers held in Quebec City first class.
CIS CEO Graham Brown is excited about the Hamilton university's involvement. "You've got a school in McMaster that is 110% behind CIS. They've done a good job with their athletics program and football program and are a good institutional partner in the community."
McMaster will have an active role as part of the organizing committee this time around, which it didn't have the first three times the game was in Hamilton. No longer will the CIS contract out the hosting of the Vanier to a third party, which is perhaps the biggest development in this announcement.
As Brown told me, owning the Vanier product is key to the CIS's economic growth. "Bringing it in-house just ties it to the bigger picture of centralizing all of your commercial assets," he said. "We're putting a plan in place in the long term to have our own commercial department doing our own corporate deals. It's going to be increasingly more difficult to have a third party that brings those to the table where you don't have conflict, so the only way to avoid conflicts is to own the property yourself. In addition we need to have that money to reinvest in CIS athletics."
The next frontier for CIS sports is engaging corporate sponsors. The fact that the Vanier Cup title sponsor is the Hamilton-based ArcelorMittal Dofasco will not only be a big help in engaging the community and promoting the event, it gives the sponsor great value. For CIS, sponsorship is in many ways a mutually beneficial partnership not strictly a financial arrangement, so it helps to give your partners the best possible return on investment.
The other aspect is the venue itself. The Tiger-Cats won their first 10 home games at Tim Hortons Field and expect to sell out the majority of their home contests next year. The Hamilton football community has proven that it is willing to brave any and all elements to enjoy great football games. With multiple lounges and terraces, a stellar press area and concession stands, THF is a space the CIS game can use to draw in and entertain unique fans in a way the pre-existing campus facilities simply can't.
What is most exciting is the template this creates for future Vanier Cups. The recipe could eventually be: find a burgeoning football community with a strong local university and a state-of-the-art football venue and you've found your host city. The best of both worlds for players and fans alike. Leave the game there for two years to build continuity and learn best practices, something ideal for administrators and corporate sponsors.
There were other options available for this year's championship that remain exciting potential destinations in the future.
With the resurgence of football in the nation's capital, wouldn't TD Place be a great venue? It's done a great job of revitalizing the Panda Bowl rivalry already. With the Redblacks, Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees all experiencing success, it seems that it would be a great marriage.
Winnipeg's Investors Group Field is already a part tenant to the University of Manitoba Bisons. The Blue Bombers' GM, Kyle Walters, and head coach, Mike O'Shea, are both CIS alums. The Winnipeg community has proven capable of rallying around the Canadian game, evidenced by the way they hosted the 2015 Grey Cup. Having the biggest game in CIS football there would make perfect sense.
What about Toronto? Even that seems feasible, the Vanier in a new, football-friendly BMO Field would provide for a festive atmosphere.
However, the best place for the game right now is in Hamilton, at least according to Brown. "You've got the newest and most modern stadium in the country. Tim Hortons Field is pretty off the charts and you've got a great football community," he said.
The next two years could raise the bar for CIS national championships for a long time to come. Will that be the case?
As of Monday, the clock is ticking.
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett