Mailbag #1: On the Leaks, Rule Changes, and Playing with 3
I'm answering your questions!
What a few weeks it has been. Teams breaking up, forming (allegedly), players retiring, Canada winning bronze at the World Women’s and Paralympics…it’s been a lot to take in. I figure every so often when there’s lots of news flying, I’ll ask for some questions and do a mailbag. Here’s the first one. If I didn’t get to your question, my apologies. There’s always next time.
We might as well get this one out of the way first. There are a few things at play here, and I’ll try my best to touch on all of them. So first of all, in a vacuum, do I think that curling team announcements being leaked directly affects sponsorship? No, I do not. If Team Homan had been leaked say, a week before that Coolbet podcast/stream, do I think Coolbet is all of a sudden going to drop them from their ranks? Or give them less money? No, I do not. So why is this an issue?
Well, it’s a cumulative effect. The reality is that curling teams can only do so much for a potential sponsor. Yes, they can wear their sponsor’s logos—but only sometimes. And not at the biggest championships. Yes, they can do sponsor activation events, whether that’s teaching a curling clinic for employees of a company, or doing sponsored content on social media. But schedules are demanding and there’s only so many of those you can do. We are still fairly low on the sports food chain, and most sponsors understand that they’re sponsoring curling for the love of the game, rather than a substantial return on investment that they might see by sponsoring more high-profile athletes and leagues. So while it’s tough to exactly say “leaks ruined everything!” if you take away literally ANY means for a curling team to generate buzz for a company, you are doing long-term damage for potential sponsorship money in the game.
Curling sponsorships are fragile. I always think back to Jim Cotter. He had a long-time relationship with a company who was his premium sponsor. The year after he had the greatest year of his career on the ice—making it to the 2013 Trials and Brier Finals—that sponsor dropped him. If an NBA player wins the MVP, you don’t see Nike rushing out to drop them. Usually, they get MORE money. It seems counterproductive, but the reality is that a lot of curling sponsorships are founded on personal relationships with someone in those companies, and a lot of the companies are small. Maybe the company has a down year. Maybe their curling team just didn’t quite deliver the impressions they thought they would. Maybe that person they had the personal relationship with moves on to another job. So again, I don’t think one incident necessarily tanks a sponsor relationship, but it doesn’t help. Curlers want to offer sponsors as much exposure as they can, and offering them something big like being part of a team announcement matters.
As for the ethical part of the conversation…I have a great deal of respect of Kevin Martin. We’ve commentated together and he helped me a lot, and obviously his impact on the game and helping it to gain mainstream exposure is immeasurable. The problem here doesn’t lie with “insider” reporting. The problem here lies with trust. A lot of people defended Inside Curling in the wake of this announcement, saying there are insider reporters in other sports, and this is what our sport needs to gain legitimacy. And that is probably true. Hell, I’ve tried to become a bit of an insider myself. But what those same people don’t realize is that this wasn’t really “insider reporting”, this was something completely different, and that’s why curlers are upset.
You see, Kevin would’ve been given this information in confidence. Whether it was from the players themselves or not that he heard these team lineups from, the expectation is that those things would not be leaked. People have said “well, the teams shouldn’t have told people their lineups then!” The irony here, of course, is that if the teams don’t tell anyone their lineups…then there is no such thing as curling insider reporting. Curling will always be different from other sports because a typical sports organization will employ hundreds of people. Leaks could come from anywhere in the organization. A curling team employs zero people. It’s four (or two) people, and they’re the players. If the teams themselves decide to say absolutely nothing to anyone, then we have no insider reporting. Ironically enough, Kevin shooting for “curling insider” here may have made it so that we are even less likely to ever have one. But I digress.
The reality is that elite curlers (and associated people like myself) all talk, and they all talk to each other with the understanding that the lineups won’t be leaked, because that’s how it has always been. It was noted elsewhere that Kevin himself was mad when Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert leaving him in 2014 was leaked, because again, the expectation there was that it wouldn’t have been leaked. Across any sport, you can guarantee that when insiders report something as fact, they are 99% sure it’s fact, and that they have permission to report it. Kevin didn’t have permission, and that would be a no-no for any reporter, regardless of sport, or that they’re an “insider”.
Also, can one truly be an “insider” when there are dozens of other people with the same information? I knew all the teams Kevin said on his podcast 5 days beforehand. The girls from 2 Girls and a Game have said the same thing. Cheryl Bernard tweeted that multiple media members knew and chose not to report it. In other sports, being able to report the news first is part of the whole thing, but if that were the case here, the news would’ve been leaked far earlier. Kevin was taking advantage of the fact that no one else was reporting it.
So the ethics of it are maybe not that clear, but the fact that so many people did have that information (including prominent members of the curling media) and chose not to expose it makes the fact that Kevin DID leak it appear as a cynical attempt to get clicks for his own podcast, which can be seen by curlers as an attempt to draw attention to his sponsors and his project, rather than their own. In a sport where there’s only so much money to go around, I think this is a valid complaint. Someone suggested to me that this was ultimately beneficial for the sport regardless, because many people were talking about it in the wake of the Inside Curling reveal, but I would kindly suggest that if the teams released the news themselves, it would be just as big, which we saw first-hand with the Team Homan announcement last week as Twitter was ablaze with speculation and commentary before and after Tracy Fleury joined the squad. The reality is that 95% of the top curling teams have more followers than any curling media person outside of Devin Heroux. So saying a media leak helps a team through exposure is a tough sell.
Ultimately, curling will be fine and so will the podcast and so will everyone. Kevin Martin has always done things to try and help the sport gain more mainstream attention, and so many of those things have been successful. So we have to leave space for the idea that maybe people are wrong to be upset and this will lead to more people covering the game, and more media attention. All of that would be good for it. Maybe insiders will become a thing in the wake of this. I think that’s good too. But in this exact instance, at this time, it comes down to a betrayal of trust and violating the unwritten rules of this sort of thing, which is why curlers are so upset.
And of course, the funny part of all of this is that Kevin could have just said he was “speculating” and probably avoided all the controversy. Because he got most of the ladies’ teams wrong. He said he didn’t know what was happening with Mike McEwen, or Jason Gunnlaugson, or John Epping, and I’ve been about 95% certain where those teams and players are ending up for a couple of weeks now (as I’m sure others are). So if he starts the pod by saying “well, this is what I’ve heard”, and then also gets a few things wrong, it leaves people guessing, and allows the teams he gets right to pass under the radar because well, he doesn’t have a perfect batting average. I wonder if anyone else uses that strategy….xoxo.
Ok, let’s lighten things up a bit here. Quinn, let me introduce you to Merv Bodnarchuk. There was a fantastic piece way back in 1999 on Longform.org called “Merv Curls Lead” that introduced the broader curling audience to a real character. The piece is QUITE long, so if you want a quicker recap, it’s right here: https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/snow-sports/coldest-stone-curlings-most-infamous-madman/. Merv essentially did what you were outlining here: he paid curlers to play with him, and he played lead. This practice would continue in later years (mid-00s) when the Park brothers, Kevin and Shane (Shane was one of “Merv’s Mercenaries” previous to this), would have mediocre front-end players funding their entire season. And before we think “damn this Merv guy sounds cool”, it should also be noted he was not a great guy and was jailed later in life for committing securities fraud and theft.
I don’t think this could happen now, because the draw of the Olympics is far too strong. Could it maybe happen with say, an older, previously top-level curler looking to play a lighter schedule and maybe taking a few home-province curlers to the Brier? Sure. But at the top level? No way. I could maybe see it happening as a coach/5th situation, but any scenario where the curler plays on a regular basis, no. Every position needs to be too good now and you can’t hide a player as well as you used to.
Bonus fun fact: for the longest time, whenever my team scored a point that was one of my two lead stones, we called it a Merv. Legend has it that any time this happened when Merv was playing, he would make a huge deal out of it, and profess that it showed his skill (it’s almost always a combination of luck and your team’s ability to make guards that allows the lead to count a point). So we adopted it, and maybe now your team will too.
Matt Sussman also asked a version of this question. The short answer is no, I cannot. What a lot of people saw at the Brier was having one of the best skips to ever play having one of the best all-around players ever at his disposal in Brett Gallant, and a player who has plenty of back-end experience in Geoff Walker also at the ready. That’s a freak team of 3. Now, given what we know about sweeping and the fact that we probably only need one sweeper 90% of the time allows this to be possible, but over the course of an entire championship week, it seems hard to imagine you wouldn’t burn out with only 3 players. And put that out to an entire season and it seems even tougher. Matt Dunstone even openly questioned in this Ted Wyman article if a team of 3 could win over an entire week. The Brier also helps this, in that you never have more than a 2-game day and often only play one. Heading on tour and playing a regular WCT event where you might have to play 7-10 games in 3-4 days and would routinely have 3-game days would make this seem like an even more Herculean task.
You’d have to have a very special combination of players to make it work and it seems very unlikely that any player would even be interested in trying. Though only having to split the cheque 3 ways would be mighty tempting…
She is talking about it tomorrow! As I said in my “Best Guess: Women’s” article, as a lead, it’s really tough to play lead for a team when you don’t have faith in the skip or any of the players shooting after you. Lisa has had the benefit over the last decade of exclusively playing for 2 of the top 5 skips ever, and certainly the two best of the last two quads. It would be mighty tough to move on from that into a lesser situation. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, but with the announcement she’s going to help out Peterman/Gallant in Geneva, maybe it’s coaching?
This is a tricky one, because we know the USA/Japan/Korea/etc will always be sending their best team, as their depth isn’t there to send anyone else. So the question becomes, how comfortable are you that Canada C or Canada F (assuming we aren’t sending our A Team) can place in the top 5? Right now, it’s probably pretty high, but we’ve seen in recent years that these teams are catching up. I think it’s likely a great chance to get the Brier/Scotties winning team an additional high-leverage tournament that doesn’t have the pressure of the Worlds. Similar to a European Championship. The only issue is the calendar. The Brier/Scotties team of the year before may have already gone to Worlds. So that can cause issues too. The team might not be the same, etc.
My proposal? Move the Canada Cup earlier, and the winner of the Canada Cup goes to the Pan-Continental Championship AND gets a bye to the Brier/Scotties as Canada 2. There is some talk that wild card teams might get declared before the Brier/Scotties now in order to open up some provinces and give other teams a chance to make nationals. Here’s a free idea, Curling Canada, to help you declare one of those WC teams. Have at it.
Ok, last one. A few of you asked about rule changes. I wouldn’t say they are completely against the changes, Staffe, but that they’re more against the way they are implemented. Trying out new rule changes at the World Championships seems kind of crazy, doesn’t it? All major sports leagues try out their new rules—robot umps and pitch clocks in baseball, the trapezoid and hybrid icing in hockey, etc.—in their feeder leagues. Why doesn’t curling do the same? Curlers have shown they’re open to rule changes at Grand Slam events, so why not do it there and see how everyone likes it?
I also think curlers get upset because a lot of the rule changes seem to come without their consultation, and so the only way they get a voice is by taking to social media, which comes across like they are complaining. If curlers were sat around a table with the curling federations and able to voice their concerns in a more appropriate setting for discussion, then they wouldn’t feel like their backs are against the wall and their only option is to come out swinging.
Thanks everyone for the awesome questions! I’ll definitely do more of these in the future. As always, you can follow me on Twitter at @cullenoncurling and you can subscribe so you never miss a newsletter (and get them delivered right to your inbox!) by clicking the button up top. Thanks for reading.