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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Welcome to the World Canada Grand Slam Tim Hortons’ Home Hardware Tankard Cup Scotties Championship Classic

Some random venting…

Welcome to the World Canada Grand Slam Tim Hortons’ Home Hardware Tankard Cup Scotties Championship Classic

Okay – let me preface this by saying that I love curling. I love playing in big tournaments, and I love watching the game on TV.
My question is – have we gone around the bend in terms of the number of “big” event tournaments? Have we gotten to the point where we are losing the impact by burning out both the fans and the players?
This weekend, there was the Canada Cup. At the same time, there is World Cup of Curling. Next week – there is a Slam in Conception Bay Newfoundland. As a curling fan, what am I supposed to care about? What does it all mean? At what point do fans start to say: really? Another event? Why should I care about this one?

Pros vs. Joes

Much of the answer lies in the fact that there are about a dozen teams in the world right now that are Professional Curlers. Let’s call them the Pros. There are 6 or 7 of these teams in Canada, the rest are Olympic-funded athletes from Europe, the US or Asia.

The life of a professional curler is not easy. While you do not have to worry about such petty concerns as a day job, you spend your time traveling from event to event. Yes you sometimes get a week off – but not often. You find yourself on a flight from Esteban Saskatchewan or Omaha, Nebraska to Conception Bay, Newfoundland. That can’t be a fun commute. You need to be at the gym and on the practice ice in your spare time. And the payout is not spectacular.  If you are one of the top few teams in the World, yes you likely are pulling down some decent money – but definitely not “pro-sports” level money. And if you do not win, the money dries up pretty quickly.

The Grand Slam events, of which there are now seven (!), are catered to these teams. The schedule usually is set up to be pretty light and run from Wednesday to Sunday– with a game or two per day for 3-4 days followed by playoffs on the weekend. The Slams are a pretty restricted circle, because only the top teams in the world are invited, and only the top teams in the World make the big points and the big money that these Slams provide. Few new teams can break into the invite list. Usually you see the one or two “non-Pro” teams that have curled in EVERTHING and played really well get an invite somewhere (like Scott MacDonald this week). But otherwise, the same teams will play in all the slams.

The Pros ultimately are aiming at the Olympics, which are the new pinnacle of the sport. Since curling has been included in the winter Olympics, the focus of the best curlers has been to bring home the Olympic Gold. The “system” is set up to help the pros attain this goal. Teams are no longer set up to last one or two seasons - they talk about committing for the "quadrennial".
The Slams give them a platform so that they can curl full time, Curling Canada and the Canadian Olympic Program do their part by providing additional tax-free subsidies and training support to the top teams.

The other group of curlers are the Joes, of which I am a member. You can call us the wannabees, or the dreamers, or the silent majority. We are the teams that fill the spiels every other weekend. We have day jobs, and are usually burning through precious vacation days to play in spiels. I do not mean to ennoble us, or say that we are the true heart of curling or any bullshit like that, but we are the base of the pyramid.

Joes grind it out. We drive to spiels. We fit practice time into our days. Tournaments usually run Friday-Sunday, with a much more compressed schedule. In spiels, we often end up playing 3 games per day, including the last day of a spiel where they usually fit quarters/semis and finals in the same 12 hours.

For us Joes, there is no financial incentive. Sponsorship is haphazard and minimal, so travel costs often have to be funded by our winnings. For most teams, break-even is a pretty good season. So why do we do it?

The Brier

The Brier is the likely the one remaining event that is attainable for both Pros and Joes. If you are fortunate enough to live in a Province without a “Pro” team, (like Quebec), then the best Joe team will go to the Brier and compete on TV with the best of the best, like I was fortunate enough to do last year. While the Joe teams rarely have a shot at winning (arguably no Joe team has won since Ménard 13 years ago), the Brier is still enough to fuel our passion for the game and to keep us curling. The Brier is the ultimate open. If you have the $300 or so to sign up, you have a shot. Someone has to beat you for you to not go.

This is what makes the Brier stand out. While literally every single other big event is structured to favor the Pro teams, the Brier is a democracy. It is the ultimate open bonspiel. I can win the Brier. I realize that this is unlikely, but while I might have a 1 in 1000 shot at winning the Brier, I have a zero in 1000 shot at winning a Slam, because I am not invited, nor can I possibly hold down a job and a family and curl enough in Tier 2 events to make enough points to possibly, one day, squeak into a Slam.

This brings me to the Brier format. John Morris wrote an excellent article in the Curling News this month about the Brier and suggested formats, and surprisingly I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. Some highlights:
  •      NO wildcard
  •      A full round robin
  •         Only 1 team from the “North”.
  •      Team Canada
  •      Better “perks” like a players/family lounge

He has some other thoughts that I am less sure about, like eliminating Northern Ontario or dropping the last place team from the following year, but I like the direction of his thinking.

The Brier needs to be different. The Brier is not a Slam. If there is one event that needs to cater to the Joes more than the Pros – it’s the Brier. It needs to be an accessible dream. I would argue that the very survival of the Brier depends on Curling Canada realizing this.

Regular readers of my blog know that I see the death of “Joes”-level curling as a bad thing. To me, a lot of the charm of curling was that it was a game played by Joes. The guy who won the Brier often had a day job. Curling was a game, not a job. I am now a relic in thinking that this was good thing. The Olympics have moved the game into the realm of Pro Sports, with sponsorship and TV deals and contracts (and even our own pro-sports bad behavior scandals - see Red Deer).

But has it made curling better? Of course it has. The quality of play is not even comparable. (If you don’t believe me – go back and watch a Brier final on Youtube from the late 90s. It looks nothing like the game today). But is “Curling” better? Meh. Not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong here folks. Please do not say I am against the Pro teams, or that I am anti-progress. I swear I am not. I am just trying to take a step back and ask what progress really looks like. Where do we want to the game to go?

I also hope I am not the only guy asking these questions!