As far back as the late 1990s, then-Okanagan Sun president Bob Lindsay envisioned the day the city of Kelowna would eventually become home to a Canadian university football program.
Each and every one of his successors—and the entire Sun organization—has been working towards precisely the same goal ever since.
With UBC Okanagan gaining approval last month as a full-time member of the Canada West University Athletics Association, the concept of establishing a university football team in Kelowna has moved a significant step forward.
As a full-time member, UBC Okanagan is now permitted to apply for new varsity sports teams in the Canada West conference.
The Heat already fields successful Canadian Interuniversity Sport programs in men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, with the men’s and women’s soccer squads set to join Canada West in 2014.
The university and the Sun organization are about to enter into serious discussions over forming a partnership, with the eventual aim of submitting an application for a Canada West football program.
UBC Okanagan athletics director Rob Johnson said similar arrangements between universities and junior football clubs have worked before, such as the ones in Regina and Laval.
“There’s definitely a significant and sincere interest from both parties to see if we can make this happen,” said Johnson. “We’ll see if we can work out an agreement so that we can try provide this opportunity for our student athletes. We know from Regina and Laval, it can be done. Until now, we’ve never been in a position to discuss it seriously. Now we can look at some real issues and see if we can move forward.”
If all goes according to plan over the next two years and Canada West was to approve an application from UBCO for a football program, there could conceivably be CIS football in Kelowna by 2016.
Still, both the university and the Sun agree that the real work is only just beginning and the process comes with an array of challenges.
Due to the numbers of players and staff on a football team, no athletic program on a Canadian university campus requires more resources than football, with an estimated average budget of between $400,000 and $800,000.
The Sun has already indicated it plans to play a key role in the funding of the program.
Team president Paul Carson believes the financial commitment from both the community and funds raised by the Sun would be substantial.
“We feel confident about the funding side of it,” Carson said. “In our experience, we believe both private and corporate support would be there. Something like CIS football has a big appeal to the corporate side, so we’re not overly concerned with the financial aspect of this.”
Johnson said in addition to hammering out a workable budget, the university and Sun also need to come to terms on a governance model and what the specific structure of the program will look like.
From a team perspective, one of the biggest challenges would be recruiting enough capable student-athletes to fill out a 70- to 80-man university roster.
Still, with the right plan and approach, Carson believes the transition from a junior to a university program over a two-year span would be realistic.
“It’s situation where you’re more or less rebuilding the team from a football perspective, so it’s going to take some time,” said Carson, a former Canada West player and coach with the Calgary Dinos. “If we’re going to be competitive from the start, we have to recruit a stronger calibre player, who is academically capable as well. We’re not diminishing the BCFC or junior football, but the overall level of player simply has to be better. We would need two full years to do that and we believe it’s very doable.”
Another expectation from Canada West would be upgrades to what would likely become the team’s home field, the Apple Bowl, in order to bring the facilities up to CIS standards.
Seating, locker rooms, washrooms and concessions would all require improvements at the 33-year-old city-owned stadium.
And while renovations to the Apple Bowl aren’t currently a priority for the City of Kelowna, that could potentially change if UBCO gets the nod to move ahead with football.
“(The Apple Bowl) is in our capital plan right but it’s not a high priority, there’s a bunch other needs right now,” said Don Backmeyer, Sports and Event Development Manager for the City of Kelowna.
“But if (university football) becomes real, then it definitely becomes a consideration. We would get down to business and discuss what could be done. But it would be a discussion to sees what fits, given our resources.”
Each May, the Canada West conference membership votes on applications for new varsity teams.
When UBCO does submit an official proposal for football, it would need at least 75 per cent approval—or five of the six football programs—to gain acceptance into Canada West.
Currently, Canada West football features six schools: University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina and University of Manitoba.
U of Calgary athletic director Ron Wuotila admits his institution is interested in the prospects of adding a seventh team, but only if UBC Okanagan comes to the table with a credible and air-tight application.
Considering the high profile football enjoys on existing campuses—including national and regional television coverage—and the continued growth of the game across Western Canada, Wuotila said a new member would have to be a solid and reliable partner from day one.
“A new team would need to bring a lot of positive qualities to the table,” he said. “It’s no different than running a business. In a sport that’s as healthy and as public as football, we would want to know they could be a strong, positive member for the long-term and wouldn’t weaken the product we already have. It’s not a sport you enter half prepared and it’s a decision that wouldn’t be taken lightly.”
When UBCO does submit an application, Canada West executive director Diane St. Denis said every aspect of the document will be evaluated, particularly the key areas of budgets, structure, facilities, staffing and marketing.
In the end, St. Denis said the final decision will rest with the six existing football programs.
“It has to be in the best interest of the conference,” St. Denis said. “Will it enhance the student-athlete experience across the conference ? Does a seventh team help build a better Canada West ? What are impacts financially at a time when everybody is feeling the pinch for athletics ?
“At the end of the day,” she added, “if the members perceive (a new program in Kelowna) is in the best interest of the conference, then that is their prerogative.”
In the Okanagan, Sun president Paul Carson is confident there is a sincere appetite to see university football come to town.
After more than 30 years as home to one of top junior teams in B.C. with a strong tradition, Carson, Sun supporters and the football community generally agree it’s time for the local game to evolve.
And from an organizational standpoint, Carson is also confident the Sun and UBCO are ready to take on the challenge.
“Everybody I’ve talked to in the football community is very excited about it,” Carson said. “You look at the calibre of player that would be coming to town, and these are the future stars of Canadian football.
“Obviously I’m a little biased, but I think this would be tremendous for the community,” he continued. “It would be a huge opportunity and put us on the map nationally. You see the six schools that are in now and it’s a pretty elite group. Nothing attracts notoriety like football.”
Carson said the Sun is encouraged and thankful for the support and interest shown by UBC Okanagan and is anxious for discussions between the two sides to move forward this summer.
So after more than a decade of mostly speculation and hyperbole, UBCO athletic director Rob Johnson said the university and the Sun can finally begin making concrete plans to try and bring varsity football to Kelowna.
“If the Okanagan Sun hadn’t approached us about this, I don’t think UBC Okanagan would have been a position to start going down this road,” Johnson said. “This is an opportunity where we can draw on the long and proud history of the Sun and work together to take this to the next step.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time but now we’re finally in a spot where we can have this conversation. There’s a lot of work to do, but I can say today it’s as close as it’s ever been.”