Why Are the Stingers Struggling?
ConU’s Sports Teams Are Having Trouble Finding Success. Here’s How the Athletics Department Plans to Make Strides. Sort Of.
Concordia’s varsity sports teams are struggling nearly everywhere you turn.
The football team hasn’t cracked the top three in the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec conference since 2008. The men’s soccer team made the playoffs last November for the first time in nine years. The women’s hockey team hasn’t had a winning season since 2005, when they finished 8-6-1.
And yet, a mere two-and-a-half-hours northeast of Concordia, another school’s sports teams are experiencing just the opposite phenomenon.
Quebec City’s Université Laval, once unknown in the interuniversity sports scene, stormed back bigger and better than ever in the ’90s with a model for success that has it dominating virtually every sport in the RSEQ.
According to a report published by Queen’s University’s The Journal in November 2011, Laval, facing a financial deficit in the ’80s, turned to the community for private funding and to entrepreneurs for guidance.
It would be the prelude to what Laval’s athletics department boasts today: an operating budget of $5 million, only $500,000 of which comes from the department itself; with varsity teams treated like individual clubs, each with their own president, Board of Directors and head of fundraising, according to The Journal.
The result: 11 RSEQ women’s basketball titles in the past 13 seasons, five RSEQ men’s basketball titles in the past 12 years, four RSEQ women’s rugby titles in the past eight years.
The list doesn’t end there. The Rouge et Or also boast vaunted soccer and volleyball programs and a football team coming off its 10th consecutive RSEQ football title and a record-setting seventh Vanier Cup victory last year.
And it’s all made possible thanks to Laval’s businesslike approach to sports.
So why has Concordia’s athletics department—with a budget nowhere near Laval’s, a front office with far fewer suits and sports teams winning far fewer games—yet to implement the same sort of approach?
The short answer is it doesn’t want to—not yet, anyway.
A Space Apart
“Each university determines within its own mission where it’s going to place emphasis,” said Recreation and Athletics Department Director Katie Sheahan.
At Concordia, that emphasis is placed firmly on creating space.
“My mandate upon coming here was to help the university address the facility development needs, because the population of the school was completely booming and had already outgrown the facilities to support recreation for students in general,” said Sheahan.
“The notion was building recreation and athletics facilities for the larger student body, but making sure they’re at interuniversity calibre.”
Since Sheahan assumed her position nine years ago, this mandate has led to projects like the creation of Concordia’s outdoor playing fields in 2003, fitness centre Le Gym in 2005, the Stingers Dome in 2009 and the opening of the PERFORM Centre health research facility in 2011. Concordia also plans on renovating the Ed Meagher Arena this year with money from the provincial government.
“These are key milestones in not only supporting interuniversity sport, but also in ensuring that these kinds of spaces also provide the backdrop for Concordia students and the external community to be part of this university’s larger experience,” said Sheahan.
“The university has had to make some decisions about how to stay true to the mandate of getting those spaces created, and deepening and broadening our resources in some of our sports,” she said.
That all-for-one fundraising mentality differs from Laval’s one-for-all approach, as it uses, according to The Journal, “the football team’s popularity with sponsors to benefit other sports programs [via] a policy stipulating that sponsors of the football program must also sponsor all other Laval sports.”
Once Concordia has quenched its thirst for facilities and program development, Sheahan says perhaps then the department will look into shifting its focus and budget to providing more resources for the university’s varsity programs.
“Is it possible down the road that the university might decide to explore the delivery of this in a different way? It’s possible,” Sheahan said. “The door hasn’t been opened for discussion on that as of yet.”
If ever it is opened, there will be multiple factors to take into consideration.
“In the case of Laval […] when you think about where they are, in a community with very few other high-profile sports teams, I think [their model] was an equation that was very thoughtful and very reflective of what would work in that context,” said Sheahan.
Indeed, Laval’s location in Quebec City, a city with only about a third of Montreal’s population, allows for a centralization of sponsorship to the Rouge et Or sports programs.
That’s a tougher task in Montreal, where three professional sports teams—the Canadiens in hockey, the Impact in soccer, the Alouettes in football—and four universities—the Université de Montréal, the Université du Québec à Montréal, McGill University and Concordia—are constantly battling for attention.
And that’s aside from the disadvantage Concordia faces as an English university in a predominantly francophone province.
“The cost to travel and meet student athletes from across the country—it’s a math and financial resources question,” said Sheahan.
A Way Forward
To help answer that question—and many others—the department created the position of associate director of student athlete services last September and hired John Bower, former director of university sport for the RSEQ, two months later.
While the position’s mandate is still without an official definition, Bower is to be responsible for the administration and supervision of interuniversity sports.
“I will be working with the director to develop the scope of the job over time, but it involves providing leadership in the delivery of a variety of programs and services to Concordia’s varsity students and teams,” he said.
His first task is taking notes.
“Since I’m coming into the organization from the outside, my primary objective in the short term is getting to better know all members of the team by listening and observing,” said Bower.
Over the long term, however, Sheahan hopes Bower can become a key contributor to the athletics department’s improvement.
“I would expect that once we have our associate director in place, we’ll set the stage for perhaps where we might want to take things going forward, but we don’t have an official mandate to do that yet because we’re still working on delivering the one we have,” she said.
The current mandate has the support of some Stingers—among them, rookie soccer player Shauna Zilversmit.
“The decision to build a good foundation for all teams is what I believe is the right thing to do,” said Zilversmit. “The [athletics] department is looking out for the best interests of everyone—their athletes, their coaches and the school.
“Sure, we have teams that struggle, but we also have teams that are succeeding,” she added, the latter being the men’s and women’s basketball and rugby teams. All four made their respective conference finals in the 2011-12 season.
“I don’t think that by getting sponsors and money, it will change the teams’ outcomes—you can be a team that is well-off and still have little success,” she said.
Well-off or not, there’s no doubt Concordia wants to see the Maroon and Gold succeed across the board—but right now, that simply means taking it one mandate at a time.