Canada's U Sports and the state of college sports around the world

July 21, 2023
We’re going global, digging into the state of college sports worldwide.
Canada's U Sports and the state of college sports around the world

🇨🇦 O Canada!

Intercollegiate sports are nothing new in Canada — they’ve been around since 1906, when the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) Central, a league of universities from Quebec and Ontario, was formed.

  • Shortly after, separate athletic associations popped up in the eastern (1910) and western (1920) provinces, and a women’s athletic union arrived in Ontario and Quebec in 1923. Then in 1961, schools coast-to-coast joined under the CIAU’s umbrella.

After decades of shifts and name changes, Canada’s current governing body, U Sports, was born out of a 2016 rebrand. It now oversees 56 universities across four geographical conferences, with over 12K student-athletes playing 12 sports (eight with both women’s and men’s squads, plus men’s football and women’s rugby and field hockey).

Like the NCAA, U Sports crowns a champion in each sport every year. A field of eight teams called the Final 8 — comprised of the four conference champs, the host team, plus three at-large selections based on season performance — compete for Canadian university glory.

While there are tons of similarities to NCAA programs, like spicy rivalries and dynasty programs, the level of financial support for U Sports athletes is an entirely different ball game. Athletic scholarships didn’t even exist up north until 1981, and there’s still no such thing as "full rides" in Canadian university sports.

U Sports is still a long way from achieving the pseudo-professional status of top NCAA athletics, but the organization is certainly laying the groundwork, enticing more and more home-grown athletes to refrain from flying south. In certain sports, they even limit the international roster spots, reserving them (and the scholarships they could carry) for Canadians.

🇬🇧 God save the sports

Though Canada’s U Sports are hot on its heels, the Brits’ college sports infrastructure is arguably the world’s most robust (apart from the NCAA, of course). Organized university sports in the U.K. date back to 1919, but today’s governing body, British Universities and Colleges Sports, aka BUCS, was established in 2008.

Repping around 170 U.K. institutions and over 100K athletesacross 6K teams, BUCS boasts a whopping 54 sports, which dwarfs even the NCAA’s 24 offerings. They include unconventional choices like martial arts and snooker, culturally out-of-place sports like American football, and even inclusive options like wheelchair hoops and para-powerlifting.

Despite those impressive numbers, BUCS has a very different vibe from the NCAA. Unlike U.S. college sports, where only about 6.25% of high school athletes go on to compete, BUCS operates much more like intramural or club sports. Any university student in good standing can join a team through their institution’s athletic union — no recruitment required.

  • Because of that, athletic funding is incredibly rare. Like in Canada, grants typically max out around $6K — and even those are unicorns. But British higher ed costs significantly less than in the U.S., so those scholarships stretch a bit further.

Perhaps the most intriguing part about the U.K.’s collegiate athletics system? The top prize isn’t a championship in a single sport, but the title of BUCS Champion, awarded to the uni (usually Loughborough) that snags more BUCS points than all other schools. It’s giving Hogwarts’ House Cup.

🌎 Around the world

Though most are equivalent to U.S. club or intramural sports, student-athletes are competing on fields, courts, tracks, and pitches worldwide, from South Africa and New Zealand to Armenia and the Philippines.

🇦🇺 Australia: Sports are a BFD Down Under, so it’s no surprise that college kids are in the game. Through UniSport Australia, the governing body of 43 member schools repping over 1M students, athletes can compete locally and nationally in 40 different sports. Like Canada and the U.K., a handful of small scholarships are also available.

🇪🇺 Europe: On the continent, the European University Sports Association links all parties involved in university sports across 40 different countries to coordinate competitions between national governing bodies. They also host biannual championships in individual sports and the European Universities Games in non-championship years.

🇯🇵 Japan: The 2019 birth of the Japan Association for University Athletics and Sport (UNIVAS) is the nation’s first step toward more NCAA–level offerings. Hoping to bridge the separation between athletics and academics, over 30 sports at more than 200 institutions are already repped by the four-year-old association. Impressive.

🥇 FISU: The biggest global college sports org to know? The Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU), which strives “to expand the role and reach of university sport around the world.” Inspired by the NCAA, FISU’s history stretches back to 1919, with a major revamp in 1949. It features dozens of sports, with associations on six continents.

  • For example, the 2019 Summer Games hosted 6K athletes and handed out 220 medals. The U.S. snagged 53 of ’em, with help from NCAA athletes like current Tennessee women’s hooper Rickea Jackson, whose then-squad, Mississippi State, bagged silver.

🔮 Zooming out

The world might be competing, but the NCAA is still in an echelon of its own. Across its three divisions, the U.S. behemoth has nearly 20K teams with over half a million athletes. This often shocks non-Americans because college sports in nearly every other country are a “for fun” extracurricular, not an often-necessary stepping stone to a pro career.

Most other countries have deeply entrenched development programs through their professional sports organizations or their governments. These capture sports superstars at a young age, often allowing them to bypass higher education entirely — which has pros and cons of its own.

The NCAA has had a major impact on athletics around the world, especially women’s sports. Because of Title IX, American women are wildly successful in a multitude of sports, with universities providing more training and development than the historically anemic opportunities for women and girls in many other countries.

  • But it’s not just about international glory for the U.S. — foreign athletes often choose to compete in the NCAA to up their game for their home country. In this WWC alone, 137 players across 21 of the 32 teams have NCAA creds on their resumes. Sheesh.

This epic pipeline continues to spit out superstars, and that’s one huge reason why so many countries — like Canada, the U.K., and Japan — are upping their collegiate sports game. We, of course, love to see it.