The Canadian Way: Athletic Directors within Interuniversity Sport in Canada

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Like the United States, college athletics plays a significant role in the fabric of Canada. (Photo via Pexels)

*This piece is a guest post from Tyler Harrison, @tyharrison92

Intercollegiate Athletics are a unique yet integral part of North American institutions of higher education. Through competition and achievement, intercollegiate sport in both Canada (U SPORTS), and the United States (NCAA), is a valuable contributor to their member institutions. To operate successfully and provide optimal return on many levels, athletic departments require strategy, human resources, and committed investments of time, talent, and budget dollars.

Within the Canadian context of interuniversity athletics, the athletic and recreation departments of 56 member institutions are made up of a myriad of resources. In an environment where broad institutional differences may permeate across every member in different ways, our understanding of how these institutions and their athletic departments operate should be explored. Beginning at the core, the Athletic Directors within the specific U SPORTS member institutions are at the front line in these departments and require specific competencies to successfully manage their departments.  

Recognizing that the Athletic Director’s role has undergone significant changes in scope, from days where those hired who were once student-athletes themselves or coaches in the past, there is an increasing need to identify and update current competencies deemed relevant in athletic administration and the role specifically. However, before we get into my research, it is important to provide a synopsis of university sport in Canada.

The Landscape of University Sport in Canada

Comprised of 56 member institutions, U SPORTS is the governing body of university sport in Canada. Its members are grouped within four associations across the country, including the Canada West Universities Athletic Association (CWUAA), Ontario University Athletics (OUA), Réseau du sport étudiant du Quebec (RSEQ), and Atlantic University Sport (AUS). Approximately 11,920 student-athletes compete in U SPORTS annually and fewer compete in 21 national championships in 12 sports (CIS, 2012). My research focussed on the conference within U SPORTS, known as Ontario University Athletics (OUA).

The OUA is comprised of 20 member institutions across the province of Ontario, Canada. Approximately 9,000 student-athletes (including additional non-governing U SPORTS sports) compete in 23 sports and 40 provincial championships (OUA, 2014). Quite similar to U SPORTS, OUA administrators have a vision of maintaining student-athletes’ development through academics and athletics to foster excellence in life (OUA, 2014).

The Athletic Director’s role

Given the Athletic Director is organizationally positioned as the leader of the department’s hierarchical structure, he or she occupies an integral position of authority and decision-making. It is therefore important to explore the ADs in terms of competencies for strategic management of athletic departments. This means generating an understanding around what an AD may require in terms of knowledge, skills, experiences, to exert a level of competence in their role. Through my M.A. research conducted at Brock University from 2015 – 2017, the purpose of my study was to understand the core competencies required of Ontario University Athletics (OUA) athletic directors to best perform in their role within inter-university athletics here in Canada.

How did I conduct this research?

  • Job Description Review
  • Unobtrusive document analysis took place by reviewing 30 previous job advertisements that related directly to the AD position
  • These job ads provided the institution Presidents/Human Resources a voice as to what they were looking for in a candidate
  • Semi-Structured interviews
  • 15 interviews were conducted in total.
  • Through these interviews, I was able to come to a better understanding of the AD’s own perceptions of competencies required.
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Identified, analyzed, and reported patterns (themes) within the data.
  • Organized and described my data set in (rich) detail

Who did I conduct the research with?

  • 20 institutions within the OUA (the largest conference in U SPORTS)
  • OUA Athletic Director Demographics 35% Female (N7) & 65% Male (N13)
  • My Sample 33% Female (N5) & 66% Male (N10)


I was able to gather my findings from over 130 years of AD service time experience through 15 interviews. The Canadian Athletic Directors and their required competencies can be categorized into four main themes along with their sub-core competencies shown below.

Strategic Oversight & Management – Athletic Directors within this study discussed their abilities to develop, direct, approve and monitor the athletic and recreation departments they are responsible for. Core competencies perceived by ADs include: Developing Vision, Developing Policy, Decision-Making, Advocacy, Public Relations, Conflict Resolution, and Multi-tasking

AD #6 on Developing Vision

“…I think it starts with what our vision and values are… Our mission is why our department exists and states that we’re here to cultivate human potential and enrich wellness through sport and recreation…”

AD #14 on Advocacy

“…constantly articulate how athletic and recreation is critical to the mission of the university.”

AD #8 on Multi-tasking

“One thing I really like about being an Athletic Director is the diversity of challenges and responsibilities in the position.”

Human Resource Management Fascinating insight from their leadership styles guided a valuable conversation around their hiring practices and the ability to empower their staff to execute tasks. Core competencies perceived by ADs include:

Leadership, Empowerment, Delegation, Hiring, and Collaboration

AD #2 on Empowerment 

“Making people feel valued, making them feel that they’ve made a great contribution and giving people the freedom to explore their ideas and make mistakes.”

AD #14 Hiring

“…I always have the saying invest in people, improve the product and win. Investing in people means hiring good people, often people smarter than I am. Good coaches, administrators, programmers, sports medicine staff, facility staff and so on.”

AD #14 on Collaboration

“…have to keep the mindset that as an Athletic Director you’re looking at the big picture of sport because you’re a contributor to sport development across the province, across the country…, so we have to collaborate.”

Financial Management – Athletic Directors maintain oversight and set the budget strategy that enables their constituents the resources they require for the operation of their specific programs.

Accountability, Budgeting, Resource Allocation and Revenue Generation

AD #5 on Budgeting

“You are managing a business and people have to understand … It’s a multi-million dollar budget and you have money coming in and out. You have to adhere to budgets… (Emphasis added) Managing that engine is kind of big. You have to set your budgets on a yearly basis and do quarterly reports like any other business. At the same time, you have to work with the university financial structure…”

AD #13 on Resource Allocation

“…it’s my job to ensure that I find our department the resources it needs to actually accomplish what it wants to do.”

AD #7 on Revenue Generation

“It’s all about generating resources that’s what AD’s, the new generation of AD’s are… It’s very business focussed now.”

Marketing Management – Athletic Directors’ understanding of managing the brand and how to promote to current or potential students/community members is critical.

Brand Management, Figurehead/Ambassador, Community/Philanthropic Relations, Recruitment and Digital Communication

Implications for the future

As the Canadian context has only been studied on occasion over the past 30 years, this is an exceptional opportunity for those passionate about interuniversity athletics to provide insight on an industry of sport not yet fully explored in Canada. Previous literature surrounding U SPORTS has only scratched the surface of what could be understood. In conclusion, the primary objective of the research was to explore the perceptions held by Athletic Directors about their relevant core competencies required within Canadian athletic departments. The purpose of updating competencies will assist those already in the role to effectively manage towards a competitive advantage for their departments. This process to provide updated accounts of competencies deemed relevant, based on the perceptions of those who work in those specific roles, will be important in the years to come.