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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

More Slams? Sure! As long as the Brier is not the 8th Slam

So a few people have asked my opinion about the Sportsnet Grand Slam Deal. Last year, I wrote What the Olympics Have Done to CompetitiveCurling, which got shared about 10,000 times (which is a lot in the curling world!), and at least 5,000 times if you exclude my mother clicking on it over and over again.
For those of you who have not heard, the Curling Grand Slam has announced plans to expand their coverage to seven events – from its current lineup of 4.
Predictably, the Grand Slam teams and players have lined up to say that this is the best thing since sliced bread and yoga pants on female curlers, while the “Non-Elite” have griped about the rich getting richer – and about this reinforcing the notion that the non-elite teams in Canada will get the short end of the broom.
Firstly, I am definitely a member of the non-elite competitive curling class. I am not bad at curling. I practice my ass off, I play as much as job and family obligations will allow, I win some cash, and I play on arguably the 2nd best team in Quebec (we just lost the provincial finals to JM Ménard), and I like to chase the dream. I want to curl on TV, like the guys I watched at the Brier back when I had hair like Jeff Stoughton. I want to wear a provincial jacket. This keeps me coming back every year (even after soul-crushing defeats like this year and last). I am a competitive curler. It is in me. And whenever I play in spiels, either in Quebec or elsewhere, I get the feeling that I am not alone. I love it.
However, I also have a job. I have a very generous employer who grants me 4 weeks off for good behaviour, as well as a few personal days to boot. I also have a family. I have three kids who amazingly like seeing me and spending some time with me, and they also like the idea of being on a beach somewhere in July or August like most of their friends. I realize that family and job are choices that I have made, and I accept that these choices keep me from going to the Olympics. They definitely keep me from Slamming – as I could not even conceive playing a schedule of 15 or so weekends of spieling PLUS provincials PLUS maybe even a Brier. Our 5th man would have to be a divorce lawyer!
So I am a dedicated curler - A die-hard, competitive, good-but-not-great member of Canada’s non-elite curling class. So the question is – what is to come of me? Am I relegated to the Dominion (or the Travelers, as I believe it is now called)? Should I focus on the Mixed?  I am not angry – I am not resentful – I am just increasingly aware that curling no longer caters to guys like me. Whereas 20 years ago it felt like I was in the majority, I am now an increasingly rare species. We have been starved into non-existence, by a lack of places to play, and tournaments to play in. I don’t really know how many of us there are left. Participation in provincial playdowns is a tiny fraction of what is was 10 or 20 years ago. I know more ex-competitive curlers than I do competitive ones.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Slams are awesome, and I have nothing against them. I would love to play in one. But the Slams are not about promoting curling - or about growing the game, and that's fine. Let me explain:
Somewhere in my non-curling years I picked up an MBA, which taught me a few things about money and business. So, if the good people at Sportsnet and the World Curling Guys can convince sponsors to pay, and if the ad revenue is there, then why not have more events? Why not give more to the elite. Admittedly, nobody is lining up to pay to watch me play on TV, but apparently enough people are paying to watch Gushue, Koe and McEwen. So I say more power to you guys!
Is this doing a lot to develop curling? I dunno. Maybe? At some point you have to think there might be some saturation. At least this year has provided some fresh new faces to watch, and some great highlights. Does it grow the sport? I don't know. It certainly doesn't hurt!
But here is the truth: The Slams were not created to grow curling, nor is it their mandate to do so. The Slams are about money. The Slams are about cashing in on the TV popularity of curling. The Slams have NOTHING TO DO with overseeing the well being of “the game”.
A few people have mentioned that the Slams might start holding “feeder” events to help the non-elite 10 qualify for a Slam here or there. I really like this idea. I also like the idea of these events being regional, so that each Slam can have some local teams in the mix. And if they do so, I would be grateful. But they are not obliged to do so. It will likely not help their TV ratings or sponsor revenues. But it would help create the idea that some of the non-elite teams could at least play their way into the slams.
So, all in all, more slams? Why the hell not. If people are watching than go for it! If you want to create a series of “feeder events” to help draw in some more teams, than I would say Thanks! – and tell me where to send my entry. But I do not expect it!

Where I have a problem is the Canada Cup. And the Continental Cup. And the Brier catering to the elite. And relegation. And Team Canada.
While the Slams have no obligation to be “Stewards of the Game”, the Canadian Curling Association DEFINITELY has this role. A significant amount of its funding comes from government, and a significant amount comes from curlers. While sponsor money plays a big (okay massive) role in their funding as well, I still think that the CCA has a role in protecting THE GAME.
When I read Warren Hansen saying things like “the Canada Cup will be Bigger than the Brier”, I shake my head. When I see relegation implemented at National championships, I shake my head. When I see an event like the Canada Cup held for seven teams, I shake my head. While they can claim to be succeeding in their role of developing the elite, they are failing to protect the greater game. And I hate to tell you, but the Elite really don’t need the CCA to get better.
I get that the Slams might not be for me. But the CCA seems to be telling me to stay in the Mixed, Mike; the big CCA stage is only for the Slam Teams. I object to that.
I say let the Slams be the Slams! They are doing it well. But I believe the CCA has to rethink how it can manage the well-being of the game by creating more inclusive events.    

In the meantime, I will get back to practicing my arse off, so I can beat f***ing Ménard and get to the damn Brier before it becomes the 8th Slam event.


While I am here – continued good luck to a kid from my home club who is currently tearing it up at Junior Nationals. I can attest to hard hard Felix Asselin and his team work at this game, and I am overjoyed at seeing them getting rewarded for their dedication. Looking forward to seeing them on TV this weekend, even with the red pants. So Felix, as we say in Quebec: “Merde!”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dear Diary: Losing Sucks.

Losing Sucks.

In case you were not following last week, my Men’s curling Team – Un bloque et 3 Bleuets – lost the provincial Men’s final to Jean-Michel Ménard 7-2.

Losing the provincial final sucks.

First prize: A dream trip to the Brier in Calgary; money, the chance to be on TSN (and RDS), the chance to play in front of 15,000 fans plus a big trophy.

Runner-Up Prize: A big bowl of NOTHING. Nada. Zip. Had to pay $5.50 for my post-game rum and coke.  TPHPTT.


At least in big cashspiels losing the final is usually accompanied by a cheque that is 60-70% as big as what the winner gets. But there is no second place at provincials. Everybody says “congratulations”, but it is always said with trepidation, as if they know that it is not the appropriate response.
To be honest, The game was never really that close. We came out strong, and had a chance to take the lead in 2 but an ill-timed pick resulted in a steal, and we were suddenly down 2 points to a team that you cannot afford to be down 2 against. JM and his team are merciless front-runners. They hit very well, and force you to play ultra-aggressively just to keep a few rocks in play. Then they don’t miss, which means you end up having to make crazy shots just to scrape out a deuce somewhere, which we could not manage to do. We spent the last few ends flailing like baby seals on an ice float, waiting as the guy with the big stick approaches.
JM and Team seemed to dominate this year like no other. They went undefeated against a strong field, and never even really had a close game (except for one crazy come-from-behind victory). They are playing better than I have ever seen them play.
So here is some Quebec insight for the rest of the country: JM is one of the top 10 teams in the world, and has a real shot at winning his second Brier. I am sure those of you outside of Quebec will point at the World rankings and scoff at my statement. He is currently ranked 17th on the World Order of Merit, and does not figure in the top 10 on the money list.
But hear me out. This team finished 3rd at the last Brier, and has kicked ass in almost every spiel they have played in this year. They lost the final in Gatineau – to Mike McEwen (the best team in the world right now), and then won Charlevoix.   
The reason they are not ranked higher is that they play a “Normal” schedule. That is to say that they do not travel every weekend to slams like the other top teams. They have jobs and families, and just do not want to burn themselves out. Seems like a wise choice; maybe some of the other top teams should take note. Especially Olympic Gold Medalist Brad Jacobs - whose wife just had a baby! Maybe being away 26 weeks per year is not the ideal lifestyle for the elite of our sport. Just sayin'.

Quebec Provincial Notes:
There were a number of compelling story lines to follow all week.
  • Ontario import Lauren Mann won the Scotties event, rather easily at that. She is joined by Brittany O’Rourke who will now play in her 3rd consecutive Scotties, Amélie Blais and Anne-Marie Filtault (you might know her the cute Quebec girl in the Scotties commercial that shows super-close ups of attractive women). They were almost as dominant as Jean-Michel, and never really looked in danger of not winning. I think they will do okay at the Scotties. Not awesome, but should be able to keep Quebec clear of the relegation zone!  I predict a strong, middle-of-the-pack showing.
  • One of the more entertaining features of the week was the Bob Desjardins show. Bob had a strange week. They finished 3-6, yet somehow were not eliminated heading into the final round robin game. Bob had a 5-man team, which he used to rotate players in and out all week. He fired people, then re-hired, then re-fired, then got sick, got better, suggested his team should submit to psychological evaluation, then lost. Somehow Bob manages to be the most-talked about curler in Quebec, even when he goes 3-6. This team should have been a reality TV show. And they had their own hashtag: #Fredsfault.
  • Once again, the Trépannier brothers (now playing with Simon Benoit) proved to be a promising team on the ice, and likely heirs to the title of chief entertainers off the ice. I am still laughing at JF Trépannier discussing an intimate moment from his past that did not end well.  Sorry - not suitable for family reading!
  • Good performance by Roxanne Perron – a young team with which we share our coach: Michel St-Onge. They had a similar week to us: they played well, reached the final and then got outplayed. Hope this team sticks it out for a few years – lots of potential and I am sure they learned a lot from their first final experience.
  • No word on any teams breaking up or staying together – or if there was I missed it (except for Bob’s team I guess).
  • Denis "the Flame" Laflamme did not disappoint in what he claims was his last provincial. He was tough to beat, and pulled off a few upsets.

I have a Dream...
There was a lot of discussion about what should be the format for Quebec provincials - more importantly what we can change to get more teams to sign up.
A meeting will be held with CQ later this month to discuss the format of future provincials (number of teams, regional representation).

But I am starting to think we are missing the boat by talking about the format. My quiet but usually correct lead JF Charest pointed out to me this week: the format is not the problem – the problem is too few teams want to curl in provincials.
Now that I am a Director at Curling Quebec I can’t slam CQ for once again under-promoting what is an excellent event. But I will say that we need to do a better job at selling what could be an excellent showcase for the sport of curling.

Here is my Vision for where I think we need to take Quebec Provincials over the next five years. My plan has 4 points (because all good plans have 4 points):

  1. More Media Exposure (and Better Media Exposure)
  2.  More Visbility – on TV or the Internet
  3. More fun
  4. More sponsorship

More Media Exposure
The Quebec Provincials get no media attention. We are not on RDS, TVA, or in La Presse, the Gazette, QMI or any of the Journal de wherevers. And the usual refrain is to blame the media.
“They are too hockey centric” – “Nobody cares about Curling”. We have thrown in the towel, and assume that we can never get any media for our sport. I think this is wrong.
My experience with communications over the past few years at my job have taught me one thing: the Media is Lazy. They do not like to work. They do not dig. They prefer when stories come to them, and ideally when they are pre-written in an easy to cut and paste press release. They will not cover a sporting event, but will often send a crew to a press conference if they know that a politician will be there.
I think we just need to ask. I think we need to write stories. I think we need to hold a press conference before the event.  I think we need to have a press area with free donuts.
Quebec is in the same position as the rest of the country: multiple sports networks are fighting to fill their airwaves with sellable content. There must be a way to use this to benefit our sport.
More Visibility
My Gatineau game against Adam Casey was web-streamed. The Mixed Nationals were televised. Most other provinces televise the Provincial finals.
How can we not? (Admittedly this year’s final would have been a yawner, but maybe next year will be better!) There needs to be a way to do this.
More Fun:
The fact is that not everybody is there to win. Many teams are there for the experience. Realistically, only half the teams at this year’s event had a realistic chance of winning, yet they were still there. We need to do a better job at making the event fun for them. The Brier has a “Patch”, a bar area where there is live music and entertainment. Quebec provincials had a couple of tables and some veggies with dip. Why is there not  a Friday night party? We used to have a banquet, which the players do not usually care about. But why not have a party instead – ideally after more than half the teams are eliminated. Invite the volunteers, the sponsors, the local curling clubs, and fans! Have a band. We can’t rely on the Trepannier brothers to play AND serve as entertainment directors. Make it an event.

The provincials need to be a rewarding and fun experience for the teams that will not win.

Provincials are very hard to run. They require a ton of volunteers. I think we need to be more judicious about what we ask people to volunteer for.
How many officials do we really need on the ice? There are scorekeepers, people keeping layouts of the house on little magnet boards, head officials, on-ice officials. Let’s cut it down. Let’s use our volunteers to do more fun stuff. Like run parties…or write press releases. Or staff a press area. We need to make the event more fun for volunteers as well.
More Sponsorship.
I think this one will happen when we get the other 3 pieces right. The sad fact is: the event does not deserve more sponsorship money in the way it is held today. It is not spoken about in the media, it does not look fun, and it is not seen by anybody who is not at the arena. If I were a marketing director, I would not sponsor it. We need to make the Quebec Provincials a bigger show before we can hope to rake in a big fish.

To sum up: We need to think big. Quebec provincials should be one of the main tools in CQ’s arsenal to draw exposure and attention to the sport. It can help showcase our best teams, encourage others to take up the sport and provide visibility to the Quebec curling scene. Instead, it has become an event that only curlers hear about, and that has become a chore from an organizational perspective. Let’s fix this.

As usual – Comments are welcome.