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Canadian Interuniversity Sport rebrands as U Sports

New name and logo are first steps in an ambitious business and marketing strategy.

By MARK CARDWELL | NOV 23 2016

The body that governs university sports in Canada has changed its name and logo. The head of the organization and chief architect of the rebrand said the new moniker – U Sports – heralds the dawn of a new era for university sports in Canada.

“This rebrand is the key first step in a much bigger business and marketing plan aimed at getting more media attention, increasing revenues from national sponsors and generating more excitement among fans and student athletes for our member schools’ excellent sports programs,” said Graham Brown, chief executive officer of U Sports.

Unveiled at splashy press conferences in Toronto and Montreal on October 20, the new name and logo were designed to better articulate and convey what the sports’ governing body is and what it stands for, said Mr. Brown. The body was formerly known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport/Sport interuniversitaire canadien, a name adopted in 2001, and before that as the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union.

In a video about the project (see below), Ben Hulse and Craig Durrell said, “There was never a bilingual name that spoke to all Canadians.” The design duo, who notably created the Team Canada logo for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, says U Sports will lend Canada’s 54 participating universities, 12,000 student athletes, 500 coaches and 21 men’s and women’s annual national championships “a cohesive, bilingual brand … that clearly conveys ‘Canadian university sport’ without ever saying it.”

U Sports’ CEO Mr. Brown joined CIS a year ago after a 12-year run as the top executive of Rugby Canada, a once-staid organization that he helped to shake up, rebrand and transform into a Canadian sports marketing powerhouse. He said the new U Sports brand will help to recast Canadian university sports as an exciting and elite brand of athletic competition that national media and big corporate sponsors will want to be a part of.

“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight,” cautioned Mr. Brown. “Like with any brand, it takes time to get established. Our focus now will be on telling the really amazing story of Canadian university sports and its level of athletic competition that is second to none.”

The rebrand is part of a new business strategy that also includes tighter working relations between university presidents, athletic directors and the four old CIS regional associations – Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and Canada West – to better coordinate, oversee and organize teams, athletes and schedules.

That ties in with Mr. Brown’s vision of identifying and promoting marquee match-ups for a televised game-of-the-week that would bring popular regional or inter-city university sport rivalries to the national stage.

prospect of more corporate sponsorship dollars

“It takes those kinds of things to create a buzz and build long-lasting partnerships with sponsors,” said Mr. Brown. He said there is already strong sponsorship interest from several large Canadian companies in five sectors: banking and insurance, telecommunications, automotive, professional services and technology.

The new U Sports brand and the prospect of more corporate sponsorship dollars appeals to Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge and chair of the old CIS board of directors. “We’re very motivated to raise the profile of university sports in Canada, which is the main reason why we brought Graham on board,” said Dr. Mahon.

A former football and track athlete for his alma mater, the University of Manitoba, Dr. Mahon called the Brown-led rebranding process “invigorating” and said “there is great enthusiasm for it” among all the university members. “The new brand will help explain ourselves better to everyone we deal with. That goes for businesses, the communities where our campuses are located, students, alumni – and that 15-year-old soccer player in Chicoutimi or 16-year-old basketball player in Regina who aspires to play for one of our teams one day.”

Glen Grunwald, athletic director at McMaster University, agreed the rebranding is “a big step forward.” A former NCAA basketball star who served as president of both the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks, he said a new name and logo “reflects who you are and how you have evolved.” He added that the goal of U Sports is not to emulate the NCAA, “but we certainly can and do need to engage our communities and our constituents more like they do, which has very positive impacts on our schools and our athletes.”

For his part, Christian Gagnon, athletics director at Université Laval for the past four years and at Université de Sherbrooke for a decade before that, says the new name won’t change anything in regards to the performance of his 18 Rouge & Or sports teams. “But it certainly does signal a new attitude and vision, and that’s big,” he said. “If it helps to improve the experiences of our athletes, I’m in.”

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