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A Conversation with: Graham Brown (CEO, U Sports)

A Conversation with: Graham Brown (CEO, U Sports)

7 minute read

  • The recent rebrand of CIS to U Sports signals a new direction for the organization as they aim to be viewed as more of a national brand with sponsor appeal versus a national governing body responsible for rules and regulations
  • U Sports offers sponsors a chance to engage with students, a valuable demographic who will be making a number of first-time purchase decisions
  • In addition to traditionally popular sports like basketball and football, U Sports CEO Graham Brown sees emerging opportunities with sports like curling

Recently, it was unveiled that the governing body of Canadian university athletics underwent a significant rebrand from CIS-SIC to U Sports. The new branding signals a new direction for the organization and aims to raise the profile of university sport in this country. In the lead up to the new branding, U Sports saw a number of other significant changes including a move in office space from Ottawa to Richmond Hill and the hiring of new CEO Graham Brown. Brown has an extensive career in sports including over ten years as the CEO of Rugby Canada. With a new name and fresh brand identity, U Sports is prepared to engage sponsors with an updated narrative and connection to student athletics across the country. To highlight the new direction of U Sports and provide sponsors a look at the property, MKTG spoke with Brown. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

MKTG

In the debut spot announcing the rebrand of CIS to U Sport, there seemed to be a new attitude depicted. There was a focus on the skill set of the university athlete as opposed to highlighting themes like student-athletics or campus pride. Was there a deliberate intention on behalf of U Sports to become a performance brand?

U Sports

Absolutely. I want people to look at U Sports Canada and see us a national brand. We are not a set of rules, regulations, and eligibility. The NSOs in Canada that are successful with sponsors are the ones who transitioned to that philosophy. For example, people do not view Hockey Canada as a set of rules and regulations. They play a regulatory role, but what they have done promoting marquee events has allowed them to successfully transition and transform. Our goal is to do the same and to turn everything we do into opportunities to promote student athletes. We want to represent university sport in Canada and to the national media. It is not the mandate of individual schools to promote their sports program outside of their local community, so it is left up to the conference to manage communication and marketing provincially and nationally. This is where U Sports can help get the message of university athletics out to the entire country. 

MKTG

With the rebrand, consumers will see a new brand identity from U Sport. Beyond this consumer facing change, are there corresponding changes with the structure or business strategy of U Sports?  

U Sports

It is a complete change. We moved from a small office on the University of Ottawa campus, to our new space in the GTA. We have a new board and governance structure. The new board is comprised of presidents and athletic directors and it’s smaller than before. Any successful organization, whether it be professional or amateur, is led by a visionary board. We have a board that is big picture and very bright. They are committed to U Sports and are overseeing investments of millions of dollars into their campuses for athletic programs. Just last year in Canada there was over one billion dollars in facility builds. 

MKTG

Let’s talk about the appeal of U Sports to corporate sponsors. Can you speak to us a little bit about the demographics of the average U Sports crowd and whom potential sponsors are reaching through a partnership? 

U Sports

Our crowds are representative of the communities we operate in. There is the student population, alumni, and family and friends. That general demographic in the stands likely will not change. But what can be done is increasing the turnout amongst these existing segments. From my experience of visiting almost every school in the country, I feel we will be successful at this. All the schools are working hard to create a game day experience. A lot of the schools have invested in video boards and have created in-game entertainment. Schools have also become more sophisticated in how they promote themselves from a media perspective. When I look at all the improvements, I think there is an opportunity from a sponsorship perspective to capitalize. A sponsor would be able to come in and reach the 17-25-year-old demographic. If there is a sophisticated sponsor who’s looking to reach that demographic and is willing to work with U Sports and our schools, I think they could really knock it out of the park. 

MKTG

Geographically speaking, is there more of a focus on prospecting regional brands within individual university communities or is there a focus on national brands that have a presence across the country?

U Sports 

Right now the individual schools are working with brands on a local level. A number of the schools are doing a very good job with local sponsorships and partnerships. Although, these may be blue-chip brands like Subway, they are actually not coming from the national budget. They are coming from the regional base of the branches or local franchisees. U Sports instead will focus on complementing the local school effort by brining in national brands. We want to ensure we are not cannibalizing the sales effort of individual universities. U Sports is responsible for selling national exposure for five sponsorship categories in all 56 schools. While there may be some exceptions preventing access to all 56 schools due to category conflict, we will be very transparent with our partners and potential partners of what is and what isn’t available.  

MKTG

Beyond mainstream draws like university football and basketball, are there any sports that you see with emerging interest from fans and sponsors?

U Sports

We are currently working to onboard a variety of new sports in Canadian university athletics. One sport that I think there is room for growth in is curling. At the last minute, we decided to stream last year’s curling national championships. That last minute stream saw lots of success as people from across the country viewed the matches. There are a lot of young people curling now and a lot of our younger up-and-coming Olympians and notable national athletes are in the university system. I couldn’t believe the success we had on what was honestly the most remedial stream that you could imagine. And now we have partnered with Curling Canada on taking our national championships to Laduc, which is a very prominent curling centre.

MKTG

What strategies does U Sports have to grow its broadcast appeal in order to bring its events to a wider audience?

U Sports

We have had some broadcast success this year. The Panda Bowl, which was a football game between the University of Ottawa and Carleton at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa was aired on national TV. It had 24,000 people in the stands and 141,000 on CityTV as a peak audience. I think we have proven that you can actually commercialize university sport. We had limited marketing time and production dollars yet we did well. Imagine if that was ten weeks of programming and you could build each week, highlighting different storylines and rivalries. 

MKTG

Overall, when you are in the room engaging with potential sponsors, what are key 2-3 characteristics of U Sports that your team emphasizes?

U Sports

White space for sponsors and access to millennials. Firstly, the property is new and it’s fresh; University Sport hasn’t really been leveraged in a meaningful way. The second aspect is the demographics, which in my opinion are incredibly difficult to reach in today’s society. Universities offer a way to cut through the noise and clutter and create messages that are meaningful and tangible to millennials. There are a lot of what I call “First Timers” in our audience. They will move away from their home and register for their first bank account or first cell phone that isn’t on their parent’s account. I think there are opportunities to activate to that consumer.

Elena Delle Donne & Gatorade

Odell Beckham Jr. & Pepsi