UBC Thunderbirds football hosts CIS Vanier Cup for the first time

With the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds laying claim to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national football title on three occasions, the Vanier Cup trophy is no stranger to the West Coast.

But, quite remarkably, the same can’t be said of the Vanier Cup game itself, which, in almost a half-century of competition, has never been staged out here. However, that is about to change, as the CIS is bringing its crown jewel of national championships to Vancouver for the first time on November 25.

The game will be a prelude to the 99th Grey Cup, which will be played two days later—both games will be played in the new-look B.C. Place Stadium—and the CIS title game will surely be one of the focal points of what amounts to a week-long football festival in the city.

It’ll be the first time the national championship game has been played west of Saskatoon and just the third time the college and CFL championships have been played in the same week in the same city. It happened back in 1973 in Toronto and again four years ago, when 26,787 fans turned out at Rogers Centre.

Organizers are hoping that by piggybacking on the excitement leading up to Grey Cup, they can attract a similar crowd here in Vancouver.

“We’re targeting the lower bowl and following the lead of the B.C. Lions in the past,” says Jim Mullin, recently hired as marketing and communications manager for the Vanier Cup. “If we can fill the lower bowl, it’ll create a great atmosphere, and I think somewhere between 24 and 26 thousand will look good on television.”

And although nothing ever beats the in-stadium experience for a sporting event, television will play a key role in the exposure of this year’s Vanier Cup. Traditionally, the game has been staged on Saturday mornings in the Pacific time zone, but with a 6 p.m. Friday kickoff in Vancouver, the 2011 Vanier Cup will play to prime-time audiences back east. Giving the game an added boost is the fact its television partner, TSN, plans to give the broadcast the CFL treatment in a time slot that has become a comfortable one for football fans across this country.

“The idea is to partner with TSN and basically make the Vanier Cup game an extension of Friday Night Football,” Mullin explains. “It’s huge for the CIS to get out there with this kind of exposure. TSN will be throwing the same resources at the Vanier Cup as at the Grey Cup, which means 36 cameras covering the game from every angle.”

What viewers in the seats at the stadium or on their couch at home will see are the two best teams in Canadian college football going head to head with a national title up for grabs. The fact the game will be played under a roof will take the elements out of the equation, which should allow the talent of the student athletes on the field to shine through. In a game that has traditionally been played in Southern Ontario (40 of the previous 46 Vanier Cups have been played in Toronto, with three others staged in Hamilton—Quebec City twice and Saskatoon are the only other venues), November weather has at times had a hand in the outcome. But that won’t be the case this time around.

The conditions for the 2011 Vanier Cup will be ideal, and fans who have never seen the CIS product—or perhaps haven’t paid much attention to the Canadian college game since UBC won its last title in 1997—will see a game that closely resembles the professional game in this country.

“CIS football is exactly what you see on a CFL field,” Mullin says. “In fact, 147 players from CIS programs are currently on CFL rosters. And, really, CIS football punches above its weight when you consider there are only 26 teams and right now there are nine players in camps or signed to contracts in the National Football League as well. There are so many well-kept success stories in CIS football, and we want to communicate those to Vancouver football fans.”

One way the organizers will get help in sharing such stories is the fact that a number of the CIS individual awards will be integrated into the CFL Awards Show on the Thursday night of Grey Cup week. That should provide increased national exposure for the winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy, presented annually to the top player in Canadian college football.

And in an effort to reach a broader audience than simply hard-core football fans, organizers of the Vanier Cup—like every other championship football game at any level these days—will be announcing plans for a sponsored halftime show, including a musical act to be named shortly. It’s all part of growing the Vanier Cup as an event on and off the field. It may be second fiddle among football games in late November, but it’s the only one that still has tickets for sale.

“With the Grey Cup selling out as quickly and early as it did, Vanier Cup has an opportunity to sell another football experience and one that is affordable,” Mullin says. “And with a six o’clock local kickoff time, it will allow people to come to the game and still empty out in to the streets to be a part of the Grey Cup festivities on the Friday night.”

Pairing the Vanier Cup with Grey Cup and staging them both in Vancouver is long overdue and will allow football fans here to get their fill. As a result, the CIS and CFL teams that prevail in the two championships in November won’t be the only winners during a great week of football in this city.