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Yukon University varsity sports program deemed viable but bound to face criticism: study

2022 feasibility report requested under access to information laws has been made public
A Yukon University sign is pictured on July 5. A 2022 feasibility study, which was requested under access to information laws and subsequently made public, has found a varsity sports program at Yukon University is conceivable but likely to face criticism. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

A multi-sport varsity program at Yukon University is within the bounds of possibility if certain criteria related to investment, time commitment and athletic and academic programming can be met, according to a study.

That includes a minimum commitment of approximately $18 million for a three-sport program or $25 million for a five-sport program over the first 12 years, in addition to perpetual annual investments of $1.8 million for three sports and $2.5 million for five sports, per the study.

Sidekick Consulting & T1 prepared the feasibility report, originally submitted in October 2022 and revised in November 2022, for the Yukon government and Yukon University. CBC News reported that the study, which has been published online, was originally obtained by the public broadcaster under access to information laws.

The study examined what benefits a varsity sports program at Yukon University could bring to the university and the Yukon in general as well as how a scalable program could be built to benefit the territory on and off campus.

Assuming conditions are met, the report recommends that a three- or five-sport program be introduced.

Cross-country skiing, basketball, volleyball, Arctic sports and archery are identified among the most plausible sports.

While the study found that a varsity program offering three or five sports is potentially viable in the Yukon, the report recognizes some potential barriers to success: a “strong potential” for a negative public response, perceived competition with the local sports community and the reality of funding to fuel the program.

“It is important to recognize that while the recommended viable sport program will meet the defined success criteria, due to the remote nature and smaller student population of Yukon University, a significant ongoing investment will be required from a funding and human resources perspective, and as such there will be groups of non-supporters or detractors of the program who will need to be continuously addressed and managed,” reads the report.

Due to the anticipated criticism, the report suggests “proactive strategic communications” and public relations efforts should be used to address concerns.

The main concerns expressed in the report are that a varsity sport program is not the best use of university or government money, that a varsity sport program will be elitist and that the cost of a varsity program will harm local athletics and recreation businesses.

“There is no plausible scenario under which the majority of expenses will be covered by new revenues,” reads the study’s section on finances.

“Although modest revenue generating opportunities do exist, it’s expected that these revenues will be minimal, up to cover perhaps 10 per cent of expenses by year 10 of the effort.”

Threats outlined in the report include the long process to establish membership in athletic associations; challenges balancing between athletics, academics and gender equity; limited qualified coaches in the Yukon and limited facilities in Whitehorse.

Strengths include attracting new students through scholarships and lowered tuition, interest from existing students in recreational clubs to participate in a varsity model and the existence of facilities for indoor sports such as basketball, volleyball, futsal and badminton.

The opportunities highlighted include fostering more sport engagement within the territory, promoting tourism and economic generation, supporting future generations by promoting healthy living through sport and recreation and tapping into the territorial talent pool by attracting local students who might have moved away for school.

A representative from Sport Yukon said the non-governmental organization will put its weight behind the initiative given it supports any growth of sport in the Yukon.

Executive director Tracey Bilsky agrees the program is viable. Bilsky foresees barriers, such as those identified in the report, but no cons to initiating a varsity sports program. Bilsky suggested finding coaches and facilities won’t be a problem, and there won’t be competition within the local sports community.

“Varsity sport is a community builder. It gives people something to cheer for — something to put their support behind. There are a lot of athletes in the Yukon that are good enough to play at a post-secondary level. Not all of them have an opportunity to do so, because currently that means going to an institution outside of the territory,” Bilsky said.

“I think it would provide an opportunity for those athletes — something to strive for — and may actually keep athletes in sport a little bit longer.”

Another benefit Bilsky listed is that the program would act as a recruitment tool, pulling in athletes from outside, particularly for team sports.

“It would open that door and give students another reason to come to Yukon University,” Bilsky said.

Education Minister Jeanie McLean was not available for an interview.

In an email statement on July 6, McLean said the Yukon government is still assessing the study and is “committed to exploring” a varsity sport program.

McLean said there will be more to say after the assessment. She did not commit to funding a varsity sports program.

“I was pleased to see the findings from the feasibility study indicate the varsity sport program is potentially viable and that ‘research indicates that there is demand and interest for a focused varsity sport program at Yukon University that will contribute to a thriving student life at Whitehorse campus and the greater Yukon and First Nations communities,’” she said.

“We are aware of the significant investment a varsity sports program at Yukon University would entail, based on this report, in terms of resources and finance, and we acknowledge the points of caution raised. We will be looking at all these considerations with our partners.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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