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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Brier is Broken! (and other Fake News)

Somehow, the debate on the format of the Brier/Scotties has bubbled to the surface amidst this pandemic. Once again, the debate of what the Brier is, and how we should qualify teams for our National championship has been the subject of podcasts and newspaper articles.

Curling Canada, understandably desperate to run its most lucrative events has scheduled a Brier and a Scotties to be held in a NHL-style bubble.

Some curlers and media types have emerged from isolation to suggest that Curling Canada should use this occasion to finally eliminate all the weaker teams from the Brier and just invite the top 10 or 16 CTRS teams in the country. The current format guarantees a spot at the Brier for each of Canada's provinces and territories. Changing the format to the top 16 would eliminate many of the smaller provinces that do not have a team in the top 16 (including Quebec!). The proponents of this change would hope to make it permanent.

The arguments I have heard in favor of eliminating the quaint idea of provincial representation go something like this:

  • The first few days of the Brier are crap, and nobody watches because there are too many crappy teams from crappy provinces in the field.
  • Good young teams in tough provinces never get a chance to be at the Brier, depriving them of the fame and glory that come from curling’s biggest stage (other than the Olympics)
  • Teams now cross provincial boundaries; many of the top teams are made up of players from across the country, so why should we still define teams by provinces?

The Inside Curling Podcast, featuring Kevin Martin and Warren Hansen, which I really enjoyed at its onset, has now shifted to pretty much every week inviting guests on to discuss how to “fix” the Brier. They paint anyone who actually likes the current format into the corner of being “against change”, or at very least as failing to see the evolving demographics that drive the game.

Let me say this clearly: Abandoning the provincial structure will kill the Brier.

To understand this debate, you need to understand that the current world of curling has split into Pros versus Joes. If we go back 20 or 30 years, there was no such thing as a “pro” curler. When I got out of juniors, I would never have considered a career in curling (not that I was that good anyway). Even the very best curlers I knew went to university, or got jobs. We were all Joes, not Pros.

Today, thanks to the Olympics, the World Curling Tour and Grand Slams, elite curlers can now make a modest living at the game. Make no mistake, there are no millionaires in curling (or if there are, they likely made their money elsewhere), but the top 4 or 5 teams in the country can likely “get by” on what they make from winnings, sponsorship/endorsements and Olympic funding for the elite few. Even then, many of the top teams still find themselves working summer construction contracts, running side-hustles or actual businesses to make the mortgage payments and support their families.

Pretty much the entire competitive curling world now revolves around these elite 4-5 teams in Canada, who are now joined by the top 10 international teams from around the world that get together to play in the Grand Slams. The Grand Slams are high payout, Sportsnet-covered exhibits of the best curling in the world. They have been successful at allowing the top teams in the world to play each other on a regular basis, and the Slams provide the funding for them to continue doing so. Beyond the Slams, the Canada Cup (run by Curling Canada) now provides an event for the top 8 teams in Canada to play for some big money and a berth in the Olympic Qualifying.

This system has emerged as the way to support the elite curlers that aspire to play in the Olympics. The Slams are an exclusive club that is incredibly tough for young and emerging teams to break into. The rankings are stacked to favour the teams already in the Slams, meaning that teams outside of the top 7 or 8 in Canada need to play in about 20 events per year all over the world with the hope of getting enough points in the smaller events to crack the elite.

While the Slams and the Olympics have done a good job at supporting the top teams, they have helped all but kill competitive curling at  the level below. This system has all but eliminated the “middle class” of curling. The Tier 2 events shrink in both number and importance every season. 20 years ago, over a thousand teams would enter to get to the Brier, now that number is now in the low hundreds. The money has filtered to the top. For teams outside the elite 7-8 in Canada, the climb to reach the top tier is just too steep. 

So why do teams keep playing? What keeps the Joes from packing it in, and just playing in club-level curling? Why do teams like mine keep working and practicing?

The answer, at least for now, is the Brier.

The Brier is special. Whereas the deck is permanently stacked against the Joes when they try to climb the world rankings, getting to the Brier has always been egalitarian. The Pros have to beat the Joes to get there. John Epping has to win Ontario. Gushue has to win Newfoundland. They have to beat all comers. Anyone willing to enter the ring and pay the modest entry fee can take a shot at it. Some say that this is unfair; that the top teams deserve to automatically get an invitation to the nation’s biggest event. I see their point, but there is certain charm to the notion that this is the one event with no free rides. You have to win your province.

Is this a raw deal for teams from Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario? Absolutely, it always has been. But there are perks to curling in Canada’s curling meccas; you get better games, better instruction, you have spiels in your backyard that help you get boatloads of CTRS points, and you regularly get to test your skills against the best, which makes you better. Curling in Alberta, Ontario or Manitoba has its advantages to offset the tougher road to the Brier.

This higher level of competition is evident when you look at the curling world today. Bottcher has gotten better in part by taking his lumps against Koe.  Epping gets no free pass to the Brier, he knows he has to beat Howard, MacDonald and some other teams that will likely never make the Brier, but are damn good. Being from a strong province makes you better. Yes, it will be tougher to get to the Brier, but hey as Tom Hanks said in a League of Their Own: It’s the hard that makes it great.

I would not suggest that the current Brier format is perfect, but can we at least acknowledge that at least part of the magic of the Brier is the provinces, the colours, the flags, and the regional charm of our nation put on display for all to see?

Can we acknowledge that turning the Brier into another exclusive Slam will all but kill curling in a number of smaller provinces? Try cracking the top 15 in Canada if you play out of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. The CTRS (Canadian Team Ranking System) inevitably favors teams from the West. If you live out East, in order to climb the world rankings you would need to be on a plane pretty much every weekend from September to December, trying to get to the higher-payout CTRS events in Ontario or out West. The additional travel time and cost make it all but impossible. 

Provincial representation gives teams in smaller provinces a reason to keep playing competitively. It gives them a reason to get better. Yes, it inconveniences the top 5-10 teams in the country, but it serves to drive the next 100 teams. 

The best team in the country right now is from Newfoundland. NEWFOUNDLAND!  The national champs are from an isolated, far-east province of a half a million people. If ever there was a perfect argument to let all the provinces play - that would be it. Who knows where the next great team may be from? Maybe the Yukon? Maybe there is some 12-year-old kid sitting in New Brunswick that will be dominating the game 15 years from now. 

So let me now acknowledge that I am completely biased in this debate. As I write this, I am currently ranked 19th in the country, so changing the Brier would likely exclude me from the mix. As the expression goes, its usually tough to get the turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving. So my case for the current Brier is very much in my own self-interest. But heck, I am 49. I clearly do not have many Briers ahead of me, regardless of the format.  I just feel that someone needs to speak for the many competitors from across the country who now find themselves on the outside, and who might soon find themselves excluded from our National Curling Championship.

So what about the current format?

Is it perfect? Hell no, but it makes an effort at walking the fine line between provincial representation and elite pro curling.

Yes, you have teams from PEI, Nunavut, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, the Maritimes and Quebec who are not likely to win (but you also have a Wildcard and Team Canada).

Yes, it means a few very good teams will find themselves sitting at home in March watching because they happen to live in a tough province.

Yes, it means you have some mismatches early in the week.

Yes, it means you have to have complicated residency rules that will inevitably result in curlers dancing between provinces.

Yes, all of this is true, but the Brier works anyway. The Brier last year was awesome. It is by far my favorite TV event to watch, even if the curling at the Slams is better. And it was fun to watch all week: the early week provided gems like the Gunnlaugson shot to beat PEI, and Dunstone making a quad to beat BC. Both of these were early in the week, against provinces that likely would not be there if the format was changed. 

The Brier is Canada. It is a collection of very different people from all over the country, whose love of the game brings them together for 10 special days in March. If we start excluding parts of the country, it would be like amputating the very soul of the event.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Bubblewrap the Horses!

This week my illustrious ex-third Alanna Routledge shared a photo from our 2012 Mixed Nationals that reminded me just how much I miss curling. (And reminded me of that unfortunate trend to wear crazy pants)

This was Mixed Nationals in Montreal, which honestly still ranks as one of the top weeks of my curling life. It was an absolute blast from start to finish, and reminded me of what I cherish deeply about the sport. It was competitive, but it was social. I feel like I have friends from across the country because of that week. It was inclusive. It was immersive. Thinking about it still makes me smile.

It has also reminded me of how much I miss curling. I have done nothing but practice since March, as spiel after spiel has fallen victim to this damn pandemic. I get it, and I know it will end someday. 

I have also been relatively quiet on the blog lately, much in the way you don’t want to pull off a band-aid on a wound that you know is still festering, I have not wanted to think about all that I am missing so much. Yes, I have been practicing – a lot - but without any tournaments to play in it feels like going to the driving range without the feeling of ever getting out on the golf course.

But this week has brought news: news of 2021 Brier! (and a Scotties and a Mixed Doubles, and some Slams). Curling Canada has pulled a rabbit out from their hats, and created a Season of Champions to be held in March in what will be a Calgary Bubble, at the Olympic site. 

This is honestly an impressive feet. Curling is not the NHL or the NBA. While I am sure the potential of sellable TV content is appealing, the cost of running something like this, both in dollars and coordination is immense. I am honestly blown away that CC has been able to pull this off. Big kudos to the folks at Curling Canada.

Of course, this will not come without controversy. 

The first question of course will be how to pick the teams that will attend. With curling shut down in all but a few provinces, how will provincial associations be able to run events to select a champion? For sure, many provinces will find themselves unable to hold a provincial championship, so they will be in the unenviable position of having to pick a winner to send into the bubble.

So how do you decide how to pick a team to go to the Brier? I see three possible models:

1) Send last year’s winner. Amazingly, this option is supported by 100% of last year’s winners.

2) A beauty contest: You line up your teams, and you have some appointed judges pick a winner. I guess the trick is in appointing the right judges.

3) American Idol:  Have some sort of vote, presumably of the players and/or curling associations to decide. Let the people decide!

So solution 1 is pretty clear cut, but presents problems when last year’s winning team is no longer curling together (as is the case in the Quebec Women’s scene). Also, if last year's winner was an upset, many of the provincial favorites will be left out.   

Solution 2 and 3 become problematic due to politics. 

Either way, teams will have to lobby to get to the Brier. This is a new skill set for many teams, who used to try to get to the Brier by actually practicing and getting better at curling. I don't remember a chapter on lobbying for support in my copy of “Curling to Win”. In option 3, you would have to pander for votes, and cries of "Voter Fraud" from south of the border might make their way north.   

Either way, this will be messy, and controversial. I think making this work will require acceptance of the fact that these are all crappy solutions, and eventually we will have to go with the least crappy one.

I sincerely hope the pandemic eases up and we get to play in some form of a limited provincial. Those who know me know how much I value a trip to the Brier. I am a purist, a lover of the sport, so there is something about giving anyone a free pass for what I have worked so hard towards in the past just feels wrong. 

However, if in Quebec it comes down to Option 2 (the Beauty Contest), then Team Fournier will sport our swimsuits and walk the runway in hopes of getting the judges to give us the Team Quebec tiara! Wish us luck, or “happy lobbying”, I guess.


Of course Warren Hansen has already suggested that the Brier seize this opportunity to “evolve” into the Canada Cup, inviting only the top 10 ranked CTRS teams. I guess I am a bit (okay - a lot) biased here, but what a crappy idea. 

I have been listening to Kevin Martin and Warren Hansen’s podcast a bit.  I can tell you that I hold a great deal of reverence and respect for both of these gentlemen. Kevin is the originator of the Slams and was the main guy behind the players tour. Warren is one of the fathers of the move to the Olympics and the Season of Champions, and both have helped develop and grow the sport around the World. I also do not question their intentions; I think they both believe that what they are pushing for is in the best interest of “the game”. I just do not agree with what they propose as the next evolutionary steps for our game.

They both talk about the Brier being “broken” and the need for it to change. And they are not completely wrong. The current format creates problems due to its inclusiveness: there are too many teams that do not stand a chance. The Province-based approach to the Brier no longer reflects the reality of the Uber-teams that combine stars from multiple provinces together. But how do we fix it? 

I guess my beef with their approach is that it always seems to focus on the few. It looks to identify the best curlers, tag them and then make the system work for them, and them alone. I get this approach, I just do not agree with it.  I see this model across other sports, from kids hockey and soccer, to education. It goes like this: Let’s try to make the game better by improving those at the top of the pyramid. Those who devote the time and have the talent deserve to reap the benefits, and for the rest we will create a Tier B championship. Their solution is to have a Brier for the Top 10 teams in the country, because that is what the people want to see.  (although I am not sure who these “people” are). 

Basically, this is the “trickle-down economics” theory about how to grow curling. Throw money and coaching at the elite curlers, and the benefits will trickle-down to grow the sport of curling for all. However, much like trickle-down economics, this has not really worked out well for anyone except the elite. “Tier 2”  competitive curling has all but died in Canada, and participation in pretty much all competitive levels is now just a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. Yes, the best have gotten better, but a small handful of pro teams receive the lion’s share of the rewards. Competitive Curling outside of the Slams has just about died – and Covid surely will not help.

I believe in building the base. The more we have teams across the country who get exposure at a National level, the more the sport can grow. How would excluding New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, BC, PEI, and the Territories from the Brier help grow the game in these places? Have we just given up, and relegated ourselves to the eventual end of regional presence at the Brier? Will the Brier work if it becomes just an 8th Slam?

By no means is this easy. There are no quick solutions. 

I just hope the Pandemic is not the excuse used to transform the mighty Brier into just another Slam.