Despite the urging of Port Coquitlam’s mayor as well as legal action attempted by student athletes, Simon Fraser University’s football program may be gone for good, according to a recently published report.
The report, completed by Bob Copeland of McLaren Global Sport Solutions, documented myriad stumbling blocks to the program including financial troubles, bureaucratic impediments and geography.
A competitive football program operated in a U.S. league is “not feasible or sustainable,” according to the report.
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‘High and dry’
Following a 1-8 season that left the SFU Red Leafs in last place, the NCAA Division II Lone Star Conference dropped SFU earlier this year.
Without a conference lined up for 2024, the school opted to do away with football, a decision that left many Port Coquitlam student-athletes devastated, according to an open letter penned by Mayor Brad West.
West urged the school to temporarily continue the program until the athletes can move elsewhere, “instead of leaving them high and dry as many of them feel they have been left.”
The team’s roster included Terry Fox grads such as defensive back Kyle Huish, linebackers Isaiah Cooper and Tom Wiggin, and lineman Jordan Sye.
B.C. grads accounted for more than 60 percent of the team’s roster in 2022.
Besides the team’s losing record, SFU’s geography factored into the Lone Star Conference’s decision to cut ties with SFU, according to the report.
“SFU is at a competitive disadvantage in its ability to recruit U.S. student-athletes, which may be one reason why U.S. recruits represent only 10 percent of SFU student-athletes in 2023,” the report stated.
‘Precarious financial situation’
The report notes that major U.S. university football programs are the beneficiaries of TV deals that bring in about $31 million per year.
“No such revenue streams are available to SFU,” the report stated.
Going into 2023/24, SFU’s Department of Athletics and Recreation was facing structural deficit of $1.77 million. The athletic department eventually made cuts to several staff positions and reduced spending on travel and meals after being mandated to trim $700,000 from the budget.
“The department is in a precarious financial situation and has been plagued by a structural budget deficit for several years,” according to the report. “In some respects, football represents ‘the canary in the coalmine’ illustrative of the deteriorating financial health and capacity of the department.”
SFU will have to do a “great deal of work” to make their athletic department sustainable before even considering the return of varsity football, according to Copeland.
Despite claims that the university was looking for an excuse to get rid of football, the report found SFU made substantial contributions to the football program including $10 million toward a stadium and $2 million for the football locker room as well as increases in scholarship funding.
A staff member quoted in the report said the school’s athletic department was “just barely able to function with football in operation.”
The decision to drop football left SFU facing a “reputational crisis,” according to the report.
“This experience has turned coach against coach, student-athlete against student-athlete, and forced everyone to pick a side,” according to one staff member.
Since the announcement, several senior staff members in the athletic department left SFU.
Several SFU football players filed an application for an injunction in the Supreme Court of British Columbia in the hopes of reversing the university’s decision to dump the program.
The application for injunction was dismissed.
SFU President Joy Johnson thanked Copeland for the report.
“I recognize that the findings of this report may not be what the football community had hoped for, but Mr. Copeland has made clear that our starting point now must be setting the right foundation for athletics and recreation,” Johnson stated in a press release.
Another place to play?
If SFU decides to restart their football program, the best option is likely either Canada West or U SPORTS, according to the report.
However, neither of those athletic conferences allow a school to join in only one sport. To join, SFU would have to be granted an exemption supports by two-thirds of U Sports members and 75 percent of Canada West members.
Also, if SFU was allowed to play in either conference, the school would have to expand their field which could mean the “removal or reconfiguration” of the track.
The report was based on consultation with 240 individuals including “student-athletes, SFU staff and University leaders, alumni, former coaches, and other community and football stakeholders,” according to the report.
The strongest class
In the spring of 2022, SFU announced a promising group of student-athletes that head football coach Mike Rigell called: “the strongest BC recruiting class that SFU has signed since joining the NCAA.”
That class included Terry Fox grads Alex Gagnon, a highly touted linebacker, as well as imposing lineman Juan Valle.
“Coming to SFU is a win-win situation,” Rigell stated at the time. “You are coming to a world-class university that provides a great education and you are playing in the best football conference in NCAA Division II.”