What surprised me, though, was that my Canadian future father-in-law said, "Me too!"
I was curious as to how he could be a fellow Syracuse Orange fan, though, since not only were we standing in his kitchen in Kingston, Ontario, a town which is home to one of the most prestigious universities in Canada (Queen's University), but also, his daughter, who would one day be my wife, was at the time a student at the University of Ottawa. What connection could he possibly have to my hometown that could override his own? Well, this college graduation season when everybody is feeling nostalgic for their own alma maters, I thought I'd explore this question.
Indeed, much of my life in America growing up was built around college sports: Penn State, for my mother's hometown in Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, for my father's hometown in Upstate New York. In the fall it was football; in the spring it was basketball. We paid extra to the cable company for college sports networks like ESPNU. For a time, my parents even worked at Syracuse's JMA Wireless Dome, one of the largest college sports venues in the country. There is pretty much nowhere you can go in a 10-county area of New York that you won't see that orange and blue 'S' on bumper stickers, t-shirts, dog sweaters, beer steins, COVID face masks, cereals and ice cream flavors, you name it. And you need not go to the university campus to buy any of this stuff--it's readily available at any (yes, any) store in the area. My elementary school, which was affiliated with Syracuse University in no way whatsoever other than relative geographic proximity, used to award kids for doing a good job with bright orange Syracuse football jerseys, emblazoned with the kid's name on them. It was considered the highest honor a student could get before a high school diploma.
And keep in mind, this is all happening in the northernmost reaches of New York. This is nothing compared to places like the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama--you know, the places where every sports drama movie or TV show takes place.
But just one more hour north and...
A league of their own
Oh, and if you want to pick up some gear to cheer on your favorite team, look no further than your local Walmart, like this one in Kingston, Ontario:
No college teams!
Not a single item for a single college or university team is to be found here, or anywhere else for that matter. You'd be wasting your time trying. Other local retailers have nothing. Amazon has nothing. It took me several minutes of digging on the Queen's University website to get to their campus bookstore, and even they barely sell anything!
Well, what about rooting for your alma mater by watching their upcoming lacrosse game? Better get tickets, because these games won't be on any streaming app or TV channel. Oh, and you won't be enjoying a bowl of GeeGee-O's cereal to get in the spirit, because it doesn't exist. I wanted to buy a t-shirt to rep Syd's school, and this is how the conversation went:
Me: What's the University of Ottawa's mascot?
Syd: Umm...I think we're the GeeGees.
Me: W-what's a GeeGee?
Syd: I think it's a horse.
Me: What kind of horse?
Syd: An ambiguous one, I suppose.
How could this be? How could some of Canada's largest and most prominent universities have little to no sports following?
Well, for starters, they're in a league of their own--literally. The governing body of Canadian college sports*, U Sports, acts in a similar capacity to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States. If you're into the world of college sports, you know what all this entails: rules for eligibility, game play, funding for the leagues and schools, overseeing issues of scholarship, sportsmanship, etc. Though there is the occasional scrimmage between a Canadian school and an American one, these leagues operate independently from each other (which I think is a shame; the students would benefit from the competition and the schools would benefit from the name recognition on the other side of the border). But I digress.
Okay, so it's kind of obvious that every country would have its own governing body for sports, but they mostly work the same way. So where, then, does the real difference come in? What drives Americans' obsessions with Ole Miss and Duke, while Canadian enthusiasm dwindles for, say, UBC and McGill?
After several hours of online research on the differences between athletic programs at U Sports schools and those at NCAA schools, I couldn't really find much discernible difference, other than the occasional sarcastic quip about one being better than the other in interviews with coaches and athletes. But other than that, there is very little on the topic. That's where I come in!
The only noticeable difference on paper is in the funding. The NCAA's seemingly endless budget means advertising deals, larger-than-life stadiums and arenas, televised games, long seasons with competitive championships, and generations of loyal followers.
I could have sat here and made a nice graph of budget allocations and expenditures of colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada to compare the two, but boy that would've been exhausting, considering how hard it was to get even some basic numbers.
I researched ten large public universities in Canada to find out their athletic budgets. Unfortunately for me, most of these schools do not separate athletics into their own budget categories. Athletics are thrown in among student life, capital projects, staff salaries, etc., so it was nearly impossible to figure out how much money, specifically, any of these schools are spending on their athletics programs. Six of the ten I was not able to discern any information whatsoever. Two I was shocked to learn their athletic programs had all but completely disbanded due to lack of funding, so I can pretty easily assume what the budget is like there. One (Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia) participates in the NCAA rather than U Sports, so that's an anomaly that would skew things. And one, one of the ten schools I researched, had a number: the University of Toronto spent $33.9 million CAD/$26.5 million USD on athletics last year. Rutgers University, a public university of a similar size based in New Jersey, spent $118 million USD/$150.9 million CAD on theirs. Over four times as much.
It's worth noting that both of these schools are running their athletics programs at a deficit, in part due to the pandemic and inflation, though the U of T deficit was higher (70% compared to 62% beyond budget).
But still, these schools are dropping eight to nine figures on athletics. Maybe U of T isn't on par with the major players in American college sports, but surely it out-performs some of the smaller schools (think of the ones in lower NCAA Divisions). So instead of deducing this quagmire to dollars and cents, let's take a step back and ask, why is there such a discrepancy in funding in the first place? And is there more to the story?
A cultural curiosity
One of the mistakes I made when I first embarked on this journey to life in another country was making assumptions about why things are the way they are. When you're in a new place, it can be easy to invent answers to your questions when nobody else has them. Like, "there's no pico de Gallo at any of these supermarkets in Quebec, so the French must hate salsa!"
Similarly, just because nobody is driving around with Laval Rouge et Or decals on their car windows doesn't mean Canadians hate college sports. But rather, there's a combination of things I've observed that lead me to the conclusion that it's a cultural curiosity.
For one thing, I think Americans identify with colleges more as places than schools. Not only is Syracuse University a prestigious university, but Syracuse the city would barely be on the map if it weren't for Syracuse the school. It is a huge driver of the local economy and culture. Similarly, Central Pennsylvania is synonymous with its Nittany Lions. This is not to say Canada doesn't have college towns, but rather, Canadians are a lot less likely to identify with a school in a principally geographical way.
Looking back, I am comfortable with this perspective. While having a college certainly adds to the vibrancy of a community, it shouldn't have to define it. Kingston, Ontario is a beautiful area, and I can see why it's attractive to prospective students, but Queen's University is just not really an entity that I identify with. I find it kind of odd that Americans are often prone to worship colleges they never attended, worked at, or even visited before. Nowadays, I cringe when I think about my local paper interviewing me about my love for the Syracuse Orange in 2019, and I was the only interviewee who wasn't an alumnus. In fact, I went to a different college entirely, and I personally don't really feel any connection to "my own" sports teams after graduating. When I attended college, I was rooting for my classmates, but now, I'd just be some dude rooting for teenagers, many of whom aren't even from the area, and none of whom I know personally. Sounds a little creepy, no?
Which brings me to my next point, which is the culture toward youth sports in America in general. Canada has its fair share of soccer moms, but in America, especially the South, it is crazy to see the way college, and even high school sports are treated. I used to tell people I liked college sports more than professional sports because professional athletes are "too good" at what they do; it can be fun to watch young athletes grow and improve and challenge themselves, and have some humility, too, compared to these adults raking in tens of millions of dollars a year.
But at the same time, as somebody who was a teacher for a time, I find it almost inappropriate the way that American youth sports are treated by some. Journalists running criticisms about a 9th grader's agility in the local newspaper? Commentators running replays of them getting knocked on their back on the news? Conferences pulling dozens of students away from final exams to fly them somewhere for playoffs? Coaches going around the country putting stress on talented kids in order to recruit them, giving them a misleading perspective about the prospect of going pro? And what about kids who aren't talented? What about kids who want to do sports to make friends, or to get healthy, or to try something new, or just for fun?
On the whole, I would say that youth sports in Canada are less of a "market." College* sports (and high school sports, for that matter) exist, but these places are schools before athletic clubs. As they should be. I subscribe to the line of thinking that students should be students first. Canada takes their academics seriously, which is why they have the most college-educated population in the world, and importantly, Canadians think of a school as being a "good school" for its academic rigor before they ever think about how many championships they've won. Now, this is not to say that American schools are any less rigorous because they have good athletic programs, but there is a certain duality about American colleges where they exist in two different worlds: the academic world and the athletic world. Have you ever noticed how American colleges often have two different brands or marketing aesthetics, two different websites, two different communities of people--one for the brains and one for the brawn? Or how the sports arena is often as big as, and often separated from, the rest of the campus? It's almost as if in America, a school's sports exist as their own entity, independent from the school itself, so you can become a fan of one and not the other. How curious that is, indeed.
Sometimes, when I'm driving along Ontario Highway 401 and I see something like a Penn State bumper sticker, it's pretty much always on the same car as an American license plate. This makes me feel at home, because it's a certain kind of pride and commonality that doesn't quite exist here. But at the same time, I don't really miss Penn State the school. I didn't go there. I've never been to Old Main in my life. But I have been to Beaver Stadium. And what I do miss is the Nittany Lions football team. And State College, not the college, but the place.
Americans: do you love a particular college sports team, even if it's a college you don't personally have a connection to? Why? Canadians: do you root for your alma mater's sports long after you've graduated? What are your thoughts about university sports? Should they be taken more seriously, more commercialized? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
*In Canada, colleges and universities are two different types of schools, unlike the United States, where the terms are interchangeable. We'll explore this topic in another post, but I include the term because both colleges and universities in Canada often have sports programs.