What the Olympics and Slams have done to competitive curling in Canada:
Quebec Regional playdowns to get to the Brier begin in a few weeks. This year, only 25 teams will compete to try to represent la Belle Province. 10 years ago, this number was in the 100s. I hear that other provinces are facing similar declines. I saw an article where Ontario tankard participation has fallen below 100 teams for the first time ever, from over 200 teams a decade ago. What has happened to competitive curling? I thought the Olympics and the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Slams and the Canada Cup would result in a curling Golden Age! Instead competitive curling is becoming a niche sport, practiced only by the lucky few. Sure demographics and society have played a part in this decline, but I believe the core of the problem lies outside of these excuses.
I am going to make a statement:
The evolution of curling as an Olympic Sport, and the development of a professional curling tour has been good for the development of the top 10 teams in Canada, but has been brutal for the next 500 or so best teams.
Not a lot of people talk about this, but the Olympics and the Slams have created 5-10 or so uber-teams of professionals who curl for a living. They cash in big sponsor cheques, they play for big prize money at Slams and receive tax-free funding from the CCA as carded athletes.
While this has resulted in teams that are better prepared, better coached and better trained than ever before, it has all but killed the next level down. 10-20 years ago, lots of teams could compete in well-sponsored and well-attended cashspiels, like Florenceville (sponsored by McCains), the Welton Beauchamp in Ottawa and a number of other reasonable payout cash tournaments across the country against the best teams in Canada. These were big, well-funded sponsored events.
These tournaments no longer exist. The Slams have eaten up all the big curling sponsor money. The top teams have eaten up a lot of sponsor money too, and there is far less left for the next level down of teams to compete for. So fewer teams can play the cash tour, and aspire to get better. Also, the big events that are left seem to assume that everyone is a pro curler with unlimited time off. Events commonly start on Wed or Thursday, with only the finalists playing on Sunday.
So teams that are ranked, say, 11th to 500th in Canada basically have 2 choices:
- give up the dream of the Brier (especially if you live in Ontario, Manitoba or Alberta)
- Try to crack the lucrative top 10 – which means extensive travel, (forget about trying to keep a day job!), practice, and competing initially against guys are far-better funded and prepared then you will be. And more practice.
Sadly, it seems that most teams have chosen Option 1.
It seems to me that the lifeblood of curling used to be that next level down of dedicated “amateur” curlers who played on weekend and when they could for the love of the game, not to make a career out of it. These curlers filled the clubs. The masses helped keep the CCA afloat. But these teams have gone.
I was talking to Jean-Michel Ménard a few weeks back at a spiel. I asked him why he has not played in a Slam in a while. His response disappointed me: To paraphrase him: “I need to pay my entry and travel costs, I need to get a few days off work, in order to arrive last minute at a spiel and play against guys who have not paid a cent out of their pocket, and have been at the site practicing on the ice for 2 days. I feel like I am funding them.”
If the current system seems to have discouraged the best team in Quebec, and a former Brier Champion, then I suggest the system is flawed.
What is the Solution? Not sure. But I think the CCA needs to think about how it funds elite curling in Canada, and the effect that it has on those who find themselves on the outside of the funding gravy train.
- The Canada Cup? Really? Do we need another big payout cashspiel for the top teams - this one funded in large part by the CCA? Or should we democratize this tournament and make it a spiel for the top 64 teams, like it was a few years ago?
- The Continental Cup? A Vegas junket for the CCA and a select few teams. Painful to watch. Not profitable. Why is money being spent here?
- Maybe the Brier needs to go back to being an amateur event again. There are great teams to watch that are not named Martin or Howard.
In short, less events for the chosen few, more money poured into the next level down.
Like all curlers, I love the fact that curling is an Olympic Sport. However, I love the game too much for it to become like Bobsleigh or luge or other Olympic Sports: a sport that only a few elite athletes play. The CCA and the Slams have done a phenomenal job at raising the profile of the sport, the level of sponsorship and the level of play. Maybe it is time for some teams outside the chosen few to benefit from this success for the overall good of the sport.