On Curling's Attendance Problem
Some ideas on where to go next...
I’ve been promising in some previous newsletters to talk about this a little bit, and all it took was a snowy December day in Calgary for me to deliver on that promise.
It’s no secret that curling has been struggling with attendance for a while now. Remember that it was in this very 21st Century that the Brier was breaking attendance records for the sport, forcing NHL teams to vacate their buildings for two-week road trips to accommodate a curling audience that was bursting at the seams. Now, less than two decades later, the Brier and Scotties find their way into increasingly small hamlets, the Slams have been following that same fur trader’s trail for even longer than that, and some of the Curling Canada offshoot events—namely, the PointsBet Invitational—have looked like a ghost town.
And it’s not just Canada’s problem. The European Championships this year were held in a curling club for the first time in a long time, and numerous WCF events off of Canadian soil struggle to gain a following despite curling appearing to gain a foothold in many a European and Asian nation.
So what the hell is going on? And how do we fix it?
The sport of curling has a couple barriers to attendance that I can see:
It looks better on television. This is true of almost all sports now with the advent of 4K and HDTV, but watching curling on TV surpasses the live viewing experience. You get better angles of the house, you get better angles of the play, and probably most importantly, you can hear the skips talking strategy.
There are multiple games happening at once. While you may think this a positive for the live experience (and it is, to an extent—you can choose which game you’re paying attention to at any given time and it’s fun to be keeping tabs on 4+ games), it’s a negative because it necessitates a boring in-game experience. If you’re watching a single hockey game, for instance, a break in play is a break in play, and the in-arena experience can take over during that time. For curling, a break in one game is not a break in another game, and so game ops for curling essentially amounts to, well…here’s the games! Doesn’t make for a particularly peppy in-game experience as a fan.
The game uses the whole ice surface. I’m gonna touch on this more in a minute, but the fact that every event takes up the entire hockey ice surface is a problem, as the aforementioned value of tracking 4 games at once doesn’t really work unless your seat allows that, and if you’re sitting on the sides, you’re really only going to be able to pay attention to the game in front of you.
I think the major issue curling faces is that because the viewing experience is better on television, the FAN experience has to be better. But it’s complicated, as I noted above. The Brier/Scotties/other curling events catered to the fan experience because of what was happening AROUND those events—namely, the Patch. Unfortunately, with the increased professionalization of the sport, the Patch experience has also been diminished because the majority of the top-tier teams at those events no longer partake in the Patch in the way they used to. When the draw was “I can go to this event and hang out with my favourite curlers all week long while also watching them play!” it improved the quality of the fan experience. With that aspect at least partly damaged, fans no longer flock to the Brier in the way that they used to.
The other issue with the Brier/Scotties is that the Slams show you those teams together several times a year. If you’re someone who streams curling, even more. What made those events previously special was that you wouldn’t see those teams much, so when they showed up at the nationals, it was a unique and exciting experience. They were also all representing—and living in—a single province. Now with Wild Card teams and provincial teams that almost all have at least one member who does not reside in that province, it has taken away some of the joy of cheering for your home location.
So the solution? The Brier and Scotties have to return to being an amateur competition, insofar as the Brier/Scotties are now “professional”. This has been talked about enough, but I’ll address the one major complaint, which seems to be that people think even LESS people will watch the Brier/Scotties if you remove the Gushues and the Dunstones and the Bottchers from the equation. I disagree.
Here’s what would happen. You create a new tournament (or restore the Canada Cup or whatever) to send a representative to the Worlds. Qualification comes through CTRS rankings, and teams have to declare for the tournament. If you compete at a Canada Cup, you cannot compete at a Brier/Scotties for 4 years following. The Brier/Scotties shift to teams that likely fall into a few categories, thusly:
-emerging young teams coming from the junior ranks who cannot compete with the “pro” teams in the game;
-teams with previous Brier/Scotties experience who have left the pro game for any number of reasons but might have a recognizable name to previous Canada Cup fans;
-really, really good Club/Tour teams who don’t have the time/resources to go pro
Teams must now all come from their own province, full stop. No exceptions, no “living in someone’s basement”, you live there or you do not represent the province. You’ll be surprised at how much this restores to the fan experience.
You’ll create a new feeder tier of teams that are younger. Top curlers who say they’ll miss the Brier experience actually won’t. They’ve all had that experience, most of them multiple times. The only curlers this hurts is current curlers who are maybe 25-30 who haven’t been able to win their province yet but still have designs of going to the Worlds/Olympics. Most very good junior players will (likely) get a couple Brier/Scotties experiences under their belts before they move into the Canada Cup scene. This also helps the Canada Cup, as curling fans will be very excited to see teams they had previously cheered on at the Brier/Scotties moving up to try to make it to the Worlds.
This concentrates funding for Curling Canada. As I’ve said before, one of the major problems we have right now is that as a country, we are too deep. It makes it very difficult for Curling Canada to decide who and how to fund teams. If there’s a very established upper echelon, it gets easier. It also encourages top teams to declare for the Canada Cup. You want funding? You gotta be willing to eschew the Brier/Scotties for the chance to get it.
The winner of the Brier/Scotties gets into the Canada Cup. Built-in underdog every year, and still gives you the feeling that you could get to the Worlds by winning the nationals.
The feeling of the entire event being united, including the curlers, likely increases this way. With most teams just happy to get the Brier experience, there’s a bigger likelihood the exciting qualities of the Patch/Morning Classes/etc. is restored, which played a huge role in the Brier/Scotties being a destination event for fans previously.
It keeps more curlers in the game. Right now, due to the recycling that happens at the very top levels of the game in Canada, junior curlers—even the most successful ones—are staring down 5-7 years of very costly irrelevance before they can be competitive with the top teams. As a result, we are hemorrhaging really good young players. This keeps them motivated to keep going, and keeps them encouraged to stay and play at home.
I feel like curling fans have been trained by the Slam circuit to think that the very top teams are required to sell tickets. I’m not sure that’s the case, as we have seen through multiple Slams/PointsBet/other events that sell very few tickets despite all the top names being there. I’m no genius so maybe I’m way off the mark, but I think part of what made these events special before was the feeling anything could happen, and the star-making that occurred as part of the event. With neither of those two things happening anymore, the event has become less exciting. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Brier and Scotties and they’re still very special to curling in this country. But the event has begun to feel like a glorified Slam event—or at the very least, something we’ve seen before—and I think these changes would help.
So how do we help the other events? For me, it’s simple. It’s so hard for me not to think of darts. The Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, home of the World Darts Championship) holds over 10,000 people. A dartboard’s diameter is 18 inches. You know how many of those 10,000 people in the stadium have a good view of the dartboard? You’re right, it’s 0. Doesn’t prevent them from selling out the event, because fans are just thrilled to be in the venue as its happening, to have a merry time and cheer for their favourite darters with a group of people. This is where curling needs to head.
People do still want that live experience, of taking in an event with a group of people. It just has to feel like a true experience. I actually point to Calgary’s Saddledome as evidence of this. If you’ve never been, because of the curved roof, the press boxes actually hang out over a group of seats near the back of the upper bowl. Thus, if you’re sitting in those seats, you can only see about half of the ice surface. When the action is on the other half of the ice, you watch the game from TVs mounted on the back of the press boxes. So why would you sit there when you’re watching half the game on TV, just like you would at home? Because of the communal live experience. Those seats don’t sell out during the regular season, but you can bet during the playoffs they do.
Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: put the fans on the ice. Less sheets, seats/tables on the ice, it’s time for curling to be a proper party. I know the Slams have the (formerly) Pinty’s Lounge, but it’s behind the sheets and only at one end. The sheets need to be surrounded, the game needs to be more interactive. It’ll take some adjustment on the part of the curlers, but too bad. Sitting in a cold arena on a hard plastic chair with subpar viewing angles is no longer cutting it. Curling has SO much time in between shots. The game doesn’t demand rapt attention. What it does demand is a VIBE, and we haven’t given a vibe to a new generation of curling fans. We’re going on the ice, and we’re going to like it.
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