This week's news that the University of British Columbia opted to continue playing against Canadian universities in CIS competition instead of joining the NCAA's Division II could have some interesting implications for the quality of both CIS and CFL football in years to come. It's a bit of an open debate whether the football in Division II is better quality than what's played in the CIS, but it's worth noting that 36 of the 47 players selected in last year's CFL draft came from CIS schools, while just two came from the Division II ranks. Part of that is obviously down to sample size (more Canadian players play in CIS than in NCAA Division II, so more of them are available for selection), but the quality of CIS football has been notably rising over the last few years. With UBC still in the ranks, there's a chance it could rise even further.
To be clear, that's not to say that the American system struggles to develop talent. Kent Ridley estimated last year that it's generally about 30-35 Canadians who head south to play American post-secondary football at any level (NCAA, NAIA or junior college) per year, so that system producing 11 of the 47 overall draft picks in 2010 is pretty good rate of return. It's worth noting the sharp divide in where that talent is drawn from, though; eight of those eleven players came from Division I FBS, while one came from Division I FCS (the old Division I-AA) and two came from Division II schools. I don't have hard data on how many Canadians played Division II football and were eligible for the draft, but the league certainly doesn't seem to be a guaranteed path to the top. That doesn't mean that CIS is necessarily better than Division II, but it's hard to conclude that Canadian prospects are definitively better going the Division II route (especially as they'd then have to adjust from American rules to Canadian rules to break into the CFL). Plenty of players from UBC have made the CFL under the current system, including Montreal linebacker Shea Emry (pictured above drinking from the Grey Cup last November: he actually switched to UBC to play a season of CIS football after spending three years at Division I FCS Eastern Washington University), so the current system has worked out pretty decently for many football Thunderbirds.
Another advantage from UBC remaining in CIS is that B.C. football prospects (and those wanting to come to B.C.) now have a choice of leagues, though. Burnaby's Simon Fraser University joined Division II last season, and all other B.C. CIS schools (the University of Victoria, Thompson Rivers University. The University of the Fraser Valley and UBC-Okanagan) don't currently play football. The Canada West conference currently has six football teams, including UBC. If UBC had left, CIS football would likely have had a much tougher time recruiting prospects from B.C., and given the strength of high-school programs in the province, that could have been a substantial loss for the league. The decision to stay means prospects in B.C. won't be forced to move out-of-province to play Canadian football, and that seems like a good thing from this corner.
It's also worth noting that UBC's decision is likely a significant win for CIS from a marketing standpoint. The organization keeps one of its founding (and most successful) members, and it retains a football presence in the Vancouver area, Western Canada's biggest market. UBC's press release on the decision also hinted at potential future CIS measures that could boost the league's profile, including expanding athletic scholarships. Perhaps most notably from a marketing perspective, CIS has a local school that can fly the flag at the Vanier Cup/Grey Cup pairing in Vancouver this year. Without a school involved in football locally, that could have been an awkward moment for CIS (and it might have led to poor attendance at the Vanier game, which certainly wouldn't help the league long-term).
UBC leaving certainly would have been a loss for CIS, but it's arguable that it would have been a loss for the CFL too. One less big school playing Canadian football hurts the prestige of the CIS game, and CIS and the CFL have been working together more closely lately. CIS football also helps promote the sport at the high school and community levels, and it provides a useful way to promote getting more kids involved in football (picking up fans for the CFL game in the process). Moreover, CIS serves as an effective conduit to the CFL for Canadian players, who don't have to relearn the three-down game in the pros. Some UBC players definitely still would have made the CFL if they'd gone to Division II, but the loss of CIS football in B.C. could have had negative impacts on everything from the grassroots to CIS as a whole. Thus, from this standpoint, it's probably a good thing for Canadian football that UBC's chosen to keep playing it.