Armed with a passionate fan base, an ever-growing list of elite competitors and a surge in interest after a memorable Winter Olympics, curling appears primed for a breakout.
Whether the opportunity will be harvested remains up in the air.
Despite strides in recent seasons, many top players still don’t consider themselves professional athletes. Glorious merchandise opportunities have been squandered. In many cases, the in-venue scene can be a rather sedate experience.
There are no easy answers for a sport steeped in tradition with a fan base that skews on the older side. On the international scene, teams from across Europe, South Korea and Japan are stoking interest and a new four-stop World Cup circuit is on the calendar.
But Canada remains home to most of the top events and many of the elite teams. And while ratings are strong, even a curling power country is not immune to challenges.
“Curling has a tough sell,” said Dr. James Brander, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “But if it’s going to succeed, it has got to hit those growing markets. That’s the urban market and the immigrant market. Of course, the immigrant market is in the big cities.”
One problem is that Canada’s three largest markets rarely host top-flight curling events.
The seven-stop Grand Slam of Curling circuit does makes an annual visit to Toronto for the Players’ Championship, albeit at the medium-sized Mattamy Athletic Centre (capacity 2,300). However, the city hasn’t hosted the Tim Hortons Brier since 1941, and has never hosted the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
Montreal, meanwhile, last hosted the Brier in 1977 and the Scotties in 2014. Vancouver hasn’t hosted the women’s playdowns since 1997 and its Brier drought dates back to 1978.
It can also be expensive to try to build a domestic fan base by holding events in larger markets where marketing and operational costs are higher. Cities also need to be interested in bidding and have an appropriate venue onside.
The easy fallback has been to hit the small to medium-sized markets instead and play to the sport’s rural base. Cities such as Kingston, Ont., Moose Jaw, Sask., and Lethbridge, Alta., have become go-to hosts for top events that used to fill NHL-sized arenas.
Visuals come into play as well. Packing a 5,000-seat venue looks much better and creates a better atmosphere than an 18,000-seat arena that might be one-third full.
Like many sports, curling has also been affected by the high quality of the television broadcast. Multiple replays, players with microphones and instant expert analysis can make the couch more appealing than an arena seat.
“As a stakeholder in curling, we need to find a way to get that in-venue experience better,” veteran skip Brad Gushue said in a recent interview. “More enjoyable, more interactive, more upbeat.”
Many spectators may be riveted by the live action, but curling can be a tougher sell for children or young families without bells and whistles.
Hoopla is lacking compared with other sporting events. With games being played on four or five sheets, there are few opportunities for promotional activities or music breaks like at a hockey or baseball game.
“It’s obviously not the product, our product is better than ever,” long-time skip Glenn Howard said. “The curling today is better than it was 10 years ago, for sure. The parity across our country is amazing. So something is wrong.”
On some occasions, the electricity in a curling venue can be downright palpable. The 2017 Tim Hortons Brier in St. John’s — won by local favourite Gushue — boasted an atmosphere that would be the envy of any sporting event organizer.
But that competition also stood out as a big missed opportunity for merchandise sales.
Unlike other pro sports where player jerseys, hats and gear can be purchased on site, curling venues usually only offer clothing or merchandise emblazoned with event or sponsor branding.
Crowds were so rabid in St. John’s for their hometown team that ’Team Gushue’ could have been printed on just about anything and it would have sold. Instead, the only real Gushue gear in the stands was being worn by friends and family who likely got it from the skip himself.
“There is an opportunity and it’s not just for the players to make extra money, it’s for curling,” second Brent Laing of Team John Epping said. “It’s free advertising. If people start to wear curling jerseys or curling uniforms to games, it [also] just adds to the atmosphere. I think maybe it might even attract a bit of a younger demographic.”
Strides are finally being made in that area.
Lead Colin Hodgson of Team Carruthers is the owner of Dynasty Curling, which recently signed a deal with Curling Canada through 2021-22 to serve as the federation’s official uniform partner.
The company sells custom apparel online for competitive and club players, as well as authentic jackets and jerseys from elite teams. However, selling merchandise in arenas has been a trickier pursuit given the number of stakeholders involved and contracts already in place.
“That’s where we’re trying to get to ... but once we get there, I think it’ll open the floodgates,” Hodgson said.