Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) basketball isn’t the NCAA.

The CIS Final 8 is not March Madness.

It also doesn’t have to be.

The tournament may never reach the lofty heights in revenue and viewership of its U.S. counterpart. But the Final 8 took a big step this year, to get where it can. It took place in Toronto, something that was necessary if the tournament is to reach the next level of popularity.

CIS basketball needs Toronto for it to grow. (Iram Partap/Ryersonian Staff)

CIS basketball needs Toronto for it to grow. (Photo courtesy Andrea Vacl)

It is tough to ignore that something is brewing in “the North.” Ask anyone who attended one of the CIS games in Toronto, a city that has amazingly never hosted the tournament before.

“I’ve never been, personally, to a CIS tournament with an environment like this,” said Tariq Sbiet, a national scout and writer for North Pole Hoops. “It was a packed house, but it wasn’t just a building full of people, it was lively.”

Sportsnet’s Michael Grange has been covering university sports for 20 years and says Toronto’s media has to get behind the CIS for it to grow. Grange adds that the quality of the event was “as good as ever,” but having more eyes on it is only possible in Toronto.

You could throw a dart anywhere at the Mattamy Athletic Centre and hit a reporter or photographer at the Final 8. Toronto is where Sportsnet, which had exclusive broadcast rights, TSN and major newspapers are based.

“The media has less and less money to spend to cover an event like the CIS,” said Grange on shrinking budgets. News organizations would have more bodies at an event held near their headquarters than an event held in Ottawa or Halifax,the only two cities that have hosted the tournament since 1984.

But the media is just one part of the recipe to making the CIS grow in popularity.

The tournament needs Toronto teams to get behind it. Ryerson is already there, having placed third in the Final 8, but York and the University of Toronto need to catch up. Having successful teams in Toronto brings in more fans. Students from nearby York and U of T could ride the Red Rocket to the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC). Having successful Toronto programs would mean the tournament could possibly be held at other GTA venues. Having the event held at other GTA venues would mean more media exposure. The cycle continues.

“What’s going on at (the University of) Ottawa and Carleton needs to be replicated (in Toronto). What (Ryerson coach) Roy Rana has done is something special, but you don’t want to keep repeating his story for the next 10 years,” said Grange.

The nation’s capital is a hotbed of hoops success. The Carleton Ravens won this year’s CIS tournament, beating the Ottawa Gee-Gees in a rematch of last year’s final. Dave Smart’s program has won 11 of the past 13 championships. His program is also losing its two star players, the Scrubb brothers, Thomas and Phil. The Gee-Gees’ star, Johnny Berhanemeskel, is also graduating. Ryerson’s Jahmal Jones is hanging up his jersey, but the Rams are in an interesting position. Some analysts say they have an edge in recruiting after the tournament.

“Anytime you can build energy, build the brand, the name and being on national TV, it is huge
for recruitment,” said Sbiet.

The Ryerson brand is growing and the MAC, along with Rana, is a large part of that. The gold medal game was nearly sold out with 3,917 people in attendance. A sell out is 4,000. Ryerson’s games, and the games that had meaning (read: not the fifth place game), were packed. The event didn’t break attendance numbers, but it didn’t need to.

The Final 8 was held at the cavernous Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa last year, and while the event was well-attended — the championship game sold 7,500 tickets — there were many empty seats. Grange says if people see empty seats when flipping through the channels they may be less inclined to watch. “People may think ‘if no one cares to go, then why should I care to watch?’” The more intimate MAC does not have this problem.

The CIS needs Toronto to get behind it for the whole country to care. There are no other cities in this country that have an NBA franchise. There are no other cities that are producing as much NBA talent — the past two first overall picks in the NBA draft are from the GTA. Toronto is Canada’s basketball hub and it’s time that happened at the university level.

Steven graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2015.