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Inaugural workshop prepares championship hosts to stage U SPORTS national events

U SPORTS Staff

Less than a month removed from the conclusion of the 2017-18 championship season, U SPORTS held its first national championships host orientation workshop.

Held last week at the University of Toronto, the workshop was an opportunity for schools playing host to championships between 2018 and 2021 to understand national office expectations and discuss minimum requirements and new standards under the U SPORTS brand. The two-day meeting and conference was also a chance to share ideas and best practices with colleagues, as well as hear and meet with professionals from the sports industry – all with the common goal of hosting successful championships in the coming years.

U SPORTS has holding national championships down to a science. What we’ve got to do now is elevate it to an art form - that’s our next challenge.

“It’s (about) using our colleagues who’ve battle-tested their ideas,” says University of Lethbridge Executive Director of Athletics and Recreation Ken McInnes, who will be hosting the University Cup Men’s Hockey Championship next season. “U SPORTS has holding national championships down to a science. What we’ve got to do now is elevate it to an art form - that’s our next challenge.”

On Day 1, U SPORTS departments presented updates and recommendations to the new championship hosts, with special focuses on events, coordination with the national office, marketing and promotion, communications, social media, livestreaming and partnerships. For the remainder of the conference, hosts had a chance to hear from representatives from key companies and sport organizations on how to run a successful event beyond the field of play.

Among the highlights was NeuLion Senior Sales Director Mike Mahoney – whose clients include the NBA, NFL, UFC and Premiere League broadcaster Sky Sports. Speaking about web streaming and technology in today’s digital world, Mahoney emphasized the importance of having an effective livestream in an era when 78 per cent of consumers subscribe to at least one Over-The-Top (OTT) media service. U SPORTS championship hosts learned that picture quality, video loading times, and a lack of stalling and re-buffering or repeated playback errors are key.

The hosts also learned how Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) successfully markets its profile of teams – made up of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Argonauts and Toronto Marlies – and maintains engagement with its very diverse fan base.

“The big message that we have across all of our brands right now is trying to turn our unknown fans into known,” says Christian Parsons, Marketing Director for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies. “We have millions and millions of fans all over the world or in the city that haven’t put their hand up."

Parsons notes the responsibility MLSE has in giving back to fans all year long and not just at the beginning of the season, describing successful initiatives including member-exclusive behind the scenes digital content, ticket offers, merchandise discounts, contests and events.

Following MLSE’s insight, Céline Séguin, Senior Director of Events with the Canadian Football League (CFL) and General Manager, Grey Cup addressed hosts on event management practices and building ancillary festivities around a championship. 

In the past, we’d been giving away our story to everybody else to tell it. For us, it was (about) taking that power back.

Georgia Sapounas - Director of Digital with the COC

“Traditions vs Habits: Are we doing something just because we did it (this way) in the past?” says Séguin. “We had gotten stuck in that (challenge). Now we’re asking these questions on everything that we’re doing.”

Concluding the conference, a panel featuring Stadium Digital, the CFL and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) touched on the potential of branded content and storytelling in the digital age.

“In the past, we’d been giving away our story to everybody else to tell it. For us, it was (about) taking that power back,” says Georgia Sapounas, Director of Digital with the COC. “We wanted to grow a channel, we wanted to grow an audience and then once we have that direct buy-in, that direct connection, you can then do something with it. And then our partners come on board because they see this property that is thriving.”

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Additional presenters included Sports Canada TV, the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance (CSTA), Sport & Entertainment Atlantic (S|E|A) and IMG, all of whom served as great resources to the hosts.

“A lot of creative ideas have come out of the speakers…and I’ve got tons of notes,” says Julie Tam, Assistant Director of Business Operations with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, who will make history as co-hosts of both the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Final 8 tournaments in 2020, in partnership with crosstown rival Carleton and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG).  “I’m really looking forward to implementing some of these ideas within our own market,” adds Tam, also the host of the 2018 U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship.

Representatives from 14 host schools of 13 different championship events over the next three years attended the inaugural event – spanning athletic and associate athletic directors, as well as marketing, events and sports information / communications staff.

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“The expertise that has been here the past few days has been outstanding just to hear from industry experts, who are able to break things down for us,” says Kim Wallace, Event Manager for the Acadia Axemen and Axewomen, the host of this fall’s Women’s Rugby Championship. “We’ve got people here who are organizing the Grey Cup and then relating how that can help us with our events...I’d love to see this continue and grow and kind of really break down and continue enhancing different areas of the (national championships) in its entirety.”