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Thursday, June 30, 2022

An Indecent Proposal: let me sponsor your golf/curling tournament.

 

In the classic eighties movie Indecent Proposal, Robert Redford offers Woody Harrelson a cool million bucks to spend one night with his wife, Demi Moore. Many of my favorite sports now find themselves in the role of Woody Harrelson, wondering if the big cheque you are getting is worth having some creepy dude screw around with something you love.



I have been a sports junkie my whole life. Whether its playing, watching, discussing or watching sports movies, I have always thought that sports provides a great common reference point for us all. Sports has become the new religion, it often provides us with role models, and I have always loved the challenge of having to deliver under pressure. It has what has made me love watching curling, watching golf, or pretty much any other game where dedicated athletes have trained to put themselves in a position that is compelling to watch. I love the drama.

But lately, I have become a bit disillusioned by some of the implications of money and sponsorship in the sports I love to watch. Hey, I get capitalism. I am all for athletes getting paid. I understand that money and sponsorship allow sports to reach a national audience. But damn, the last few weeks have been tough on the sports I love, and the influx of questionable money is making it harder and harder to be a fan.

Some are excited by the influx of cash – but I find myself asking myself if we are willing to take money from anyone? And is it making the sports better?

First, let’s talk golf. In case you have not been following, let me fill you in. The LIV golf tour, created by a disgruntled Greg Norman has begun poaching away golfers from the incredibly lucrative PGA tour by offering them insane amounts of money. Phil Mickelson, whose best days of golf are likely 20 years ago, was offered 200 million to leave the PGA and play in events that look more like a charity pro-ams than golf tournaments, with a few other top golfers. The money is being fronted by Saudi Arabia, who apparently are compelled to drop billions of dollars into golf for no other reason than to show that they can. Some call this “sportswashing” their money -  trying to help out their country’s tarnished reputation as a religious autocracy with a sketchy human rights record by transforming it into “magnanimous sports promoter”.

Some of the game’s best are cashing in. Dustin Johnson, Bryson Dechambeau, and likely Brooks Koepka will join the tour and cash in, reportedly receiving amounts in the hundreds of millions just to show up. I guess I get it. If someone offered me life-changing money to go and curl (not likely), I guess I would take it. But golfers like Tiger, Rory, John Rahm, Jason Spieth and Justin Thomas have turned down the money, saying that history, legacy and competition are more important to them.

It’s easy to judge the sell-outs. They have no heart, no soul and no appreciation for the PGA tour that made them rich and famous. They now have enough money for their 2nd yacht, another private jet. It is hard to cheer for multi-millionaires, who had more than any of us will ever have, who now need MORE money. But they are not the problem.

My ask is why would anyone want to dump billions of dollars to create a tour to rival an existing tour? In marketing, they say if you can’t tell what someone is selling you, then you are the product. The Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund is buying credibility, image and wholesomeness. They know their target market: they want rich, western citizens to know them and like them. Golf gives them that. Phil and DJ give them that. The financial model of giving away that much money cannot possibly make sense. This is not about business; there is no way this tour would be financially viable; its revenues will be but a fraction of the amounts it is paying out. It is all about spreading wealth to make people like them.

Of all the uses I could think of for a few billion dollars, giving it to wealthy PGA tour pros is at the absolute bottom of my list.

The PGA Tour, love it or hate it, has created a feeder system to develop the grassroots of the game. It is also a true meritocracy; you have to earn your way in and you have to keep playing well to remain. It is hard to get there, and it is hard to stay there. That is what make me appreciate the athletes who have made the choice to be that good. LIV golf is a showcase, providing guaranteed money to players.

In no ways does the LIV golf tour make golf better for the fans. Idon't know how all this will end - but I guuarantee it will not end with a "and they made the game of golf better and all lived happily ever after."

From golf to hockey…

I was watching ads for sports betting the other night. Oh wait – I was actually watching the Stanley Cup playoffs, which has seemingly become an informercial for sports betting sites. There was commentary on the betting. And then “celebrities” talking about their bets. I now know what a parlay is. I now understand odds. How have I lived this long without being able to engage in state-sponsored gambling?  

I get it. Betting on sports can be fun. Dropping a few bucks into a hockey pool is awesome. Betting with your friends, awesome. But sports betting always comes with an ugly underbelly. We know that gambling is an addiction like many others, and can ruin lives. So the incessant marketing of this, making us feel like there are riches to capture if we only play, normalizing gambling as something we all should do, feels wrong, and way over the top.

Which brings me to curling.

Curling Canada just announced its deal with Pointsbet Canada, and has created a new event: a March madness-style, single-knockout spiel in NB next September. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of trying new formats, and creating new events. And admittedly, this format sounds compelling, apart from making teams fly to New Brunswick for the possibility of being out in one-game (I believe they are giving the invited teams $5000 each to play to cover travel). The prize money is pretty big as well. They are also inviting the reigning Junior and Club (amateur) champions to play. And they will of course have sponsor exemptions.

But here is where I have a few problems with this.

·       Sports betting start-ups in Canada are using the same technique as the Saudis; they are normalizing their existence by throwing money at a sport with a good reputation for being ethical.

·       Gambling in curling is fraught with the potential for fraud. I blogged about this last year – and got a lot of feedback from people calling me a Debbie Downer for pointing out what seems to be obvious: there are serious motivations for teams to manipulate the outcomes of games to win or lose bets.

·       Inviting a junior team to an event sponsored by and encouraging sports gambling? Kinda sketchy.

Sports betting has always had problems in sports where the money being bet is misaligned with the money being made by the participants. For example, in the US, betting on college basketball had a massive points-shaving scandal, as the athletes do not get paid, but the money wagered was HUGE.

This is the wrong direction for Curling Canada. For an organization that has done so much good work of late to encourage inclusiveness and diversity in sport, the move towards gambling and monetizing the game is outside of what they should be doing, or sanctioning.

I can hear you reading this and calling me an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, and I hear you pointing out that the game used to be sponsored by tobacco and other vices. But it isn’t anymore.

Like golf, part of the charm of curling was that it has a solid ethical message built into its traditions and heritage. Players call fouls on themselves. We shake hands at the end of games. We say “nice shot” to our opponents. The unholy marriage with the sports gambling industry just does not fit.

 

I know that sports today is all about business. I am in no way na├»ve enough to not recognize that money is hard to say no to, and money is required to make bigger events, bigger purses and generate interest for the games. But if we truly love our sports, I expect us to be able to recognize that money never comes in for free; it always comes with expectations and conditions. Whether its hockey, golf or curling, the recent influx of questionable money is a threat to the very soul of these games. That is why it just feels so wrong to many fans. And just because it’s now legal does not make it right.

To be honest - I can't remember how Indcent Proposal Ends, but I am going to guess that it is not "he took the money and they all lived happily ever after".

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Thanks Lethbridge, and Let's not let the Arsonists write the fire safety rules

I am back from Lethbridge, struggling to jump back on the moving train that is my life after escaping into curling nirvana for 10 exciting days. The Brier this year, and everything leading up to it has been an emotional rollercoaster.

First, I was not supposed to even be on the ride. I had said that I was stepping away from the game back in November, only to find out that my team still needed me after my replacement went down with a wrist injury. After thinking my competitive career was at an end, I was called back into service.

We then won Charlevoix a few weeks later. I had never seen a team play so well. Felix was on fire, and everything was falling into place. I was back to practicing, and I could not wait for a week at Provincials with my team.

But then, a wave of Covid hit. Events cancelled. Clubs closed. And provincials delayed. I spent January throwing practice rocks into empty houses, once again prevented from practicing as a team, all for provincial that was looking less and less likely to occur.

We were in a very awkward spot. We were without question the top ranked team in the province by a pretty wide margin (if you go by the national raking system), but we were told that if there were to be no provincials, there would be a selection process to pick a team to send. And who knew what that meant.

We waited. We practiced. We waited some more, for what felt like an eternity. As restrictions started to loosen, there was hope that Quebec could run a provincial. We practiced. We waited. We had Zoom calls. Then they announced there would be no provincial. And we waited some more.  

I know it sounds self-serving or disingenuous to say that we wanted a provincial, but we absolutely wanted a provincial. We wanted to earn our spot at the Brier, and we honestly believed we would win it fair and square. Also, I know that the intensity and pressure of a Provincial would be a great way to prepare us for a week against the country’s best. And if somebody beat us at provincials, then so be it.

If my house was on fire, and I had to choose a single possession to save from the flames, it would be my purple heart from 2018. (A Purple Heart is the crest given to provincial winners). That crest represents years of hard work and perseverance. I earned it. And I damn sure wanted to earn another one this year.

But instead, we were anointed Quebec’s representatives. Some in our province complained at the choice, given that I had announced my retirement earlier this year. I think that is massively unfair to both me and especially my teammates, who worked so hard to get to the level they are at, and who I expect to keep winning long after I am gone. I believe we were the right choice for the Brier. 

Then, with the selection process behind us, we then found out that Martin had contracted Covid, within a week of us leaving for Lethbridge. Our last week was spent learning about CT levels, isolation protocols and incubation periods. Not exactly the ideal pre-event prep.

We found out all of 6 hours before our televised game against arguably the Best Team in the World that Martin would even be able to play. We struggled to find our legs against Gushue in that game, and got thoroughly schooled. We then won vs. the Territories, then got demolished again, this time by Brad Jacobs.

We then lost a game that we should have won. We played a brilliant game against Jason Gunnlaugson, only to blow it on a very bad call that will haunt me for many years to come. We dropped a game to BC where we should have been better. We finished strong against Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and got the added bonus of having our last 5 ends televised, as we put together a crafty 4 in the 9th end to knock Mike McEwen into a tie-breaker.

In the NFL, there is an expression that says: “You are your record”. We were 4-4. We could have won one or two more had we been sharper, and we could have lost one more had our opponents been better. All in all, 4-4 is fair for how we played. We finished a game out of the playoffs.  Unfortunately, I felt like we were finally hitting our stride as the tournament ended for us.

 

A few other observations/stories from the Brier:

  • I have no idea how I do NOT have Covid. Mark Nichols and the rest of Team Gushue were safe all week, avoiding crowds and wearing masks off the ice, while we were in the Patch, singing karaoke and signing autographs. And he gets Covid. Life is not fair. I feel for them, and I am cheering for them to become the first team to win the Brier 3-handed
  • I had forgotten how amazing it is to play this game in front of cheering fans. It is indescribable to the average curler. It is both terrifying and exhilarating, but mostly just fun
  • I need to say that I love JF Trepanier. I just want to highlight that he put up 1st all-star numbers at lead, and is the funniest person I have ever played with. And he got kicked out of the Brier patch for dancing with a cardboard cutout of the Rock (I mean Dwayne Johnson, not an actual rock). Epic.

 

Changing the Brier

Here we go again. As predictable as the spring, Curling pundits and some TopTeams will now call for sweeping changes to the Brier.  They will poo-poo provincial representation and point to the crappy records of the weaker provinces / territories as proof positive that the current format is broken. Kevin Martin & friends will wail on poor Nunavut, and point out that PEI, Newfoundland and the Yukon only managed one win apiece, all against each other. They will talk about the “entertainment value” of the product being the main goal, and point out that residency restrictions put limitations on our best teams.

In short they will call for the Brier to be better, and point to its declining ratings and attendance as proof that the current format is broken. 

This is like the arsonist who set fire to your house giving you a lecture on fire safety. 

I call bullshit on this need for radical change.

Yes, the Brier is at a crossroads. The consensus seems to be that change is necessary, as attendance and TV ratings continue to decline. (although I suspect this year’s attendance issues are likely more about Covid than lack of interest)

We all agree that making the product more entertaining will help, but where views differ is on how to get there. Some would say to make the Brier more exclusive, with only the top tour teams invited and limit provincial reps. Others would have the Brier go back to its roots, and be an event only for “amateurs” (like the US Amateur is for golfers) and discourage the pros from even playing. I think moves in either direction would hasten the decay of the Brier.

I am of the mindset that the current format/number of teams seems like a good compromise. They say the measure of a good compromise is that nobody feels satisfied, and this seems to be the case here. You have provincial representation, but you have some spots available for the hadful of "pro" teams. Perhaps the only change I would suggest would be to include the Wildcard teams BEFORE the provincial playdowns. This would help grow the game in places like Newfoundland and Northern Ontario, by giving more teams a hope of making it, and give the stronger provinces more representation.

In short, the current format is not perfect. (I would also suggest that new playoff format is unnecessarily complicated). But removing provincial representation will kill the event. Look at a team like Colton Flasch this year. Look at the pride they take in wearing the Saskatchewan green. Look at McEwen with the Manitoba Buffalo on his back. Provinces are what made the Brier into what it is, and are still an essential part of the show.

But we also need to ensure that the top teams in the country are part of the solution. A Brier without the best teams is not sustainable. It would be destined to become a Tier B event if held only for the "amateur" teams.



I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with Gerald Shymco at the Brier this year. For those of you who do not know Gerald, he lost the Brier semi-final to Guy Hemmings on an amazing draw to the pin in 1999. Gerald is what the Brier should aspire to be. His love for the game, his genuine love for the traditions and his disdain for how the game has evolved should give pause to all curlers screaming for change. The Brier works because it is the one event that is still bigger than the players. It still draws thousands of fans (and volounteers!) and can produce moments like the one he had with Guy in 99. (here the link to the shot, and watch the post-game bear-hug he gave Guy after losing to him).

Guy draw against Shymco

A few other points:

  •  I sadly agree that Nunavut should not be at the Brier. As much as I love Peter and his crew, they are just not ready and need to take steps to get better. In their defense, they told me that their club was not even open for most of this season, and obviously spieling is not an option. But I think the Nunavut association has to look at some alternatives to sending lambs to the slaughter every year. Maybe they should give up their spot for x years in exchange for some funding to repair/upgrade their curling club or for junior development. There are better ways to grow the game in Nunavut  than to have a team be cannon fodder at the Brier.
  • A few words on entertainment. Here is a controversial statement: the best teams are evolving towards a more boring style of play. I say this not to as an insult: if anything, I mean it as a compliment. I aspire to be good enough to make my games be boring. The top teams are so good, so disciplined, so methodical that I find they can become boring to watch, and it can lead to boring games. I do not mean to be disparaging to what they have accomplished, and the hard work it takes to be as good as they are. But if your main concern is the entertainment value of the product, then you need to protect the game against the idea that boring is the best way to win. This same evolution towards boring is what drove the game to the free guard zone 30 years ago. The best teams were too good and made the game boring. The same is true now. Maybe we need to go to a 6 or 7 rock FGZ. Or maybe just no takeouts on the first 6-7 rocks, even on rocks that are in the rings (like Mixed Doubles). And maybe we should use rocks that are LESS lively and harder to take out. And let’s remove stopwatches. In short, anything we can do to make the best teams shoot slightly lower percentages would be good for the game. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but the possibility of missing every once in a while makes for entertaining content. We need to find ways to fight boring.
  • It is not good for a sport when your overtime, which is supposed to be the most exciting part of the game, has all the drama of an NFL extra-point conversion. The best teams are winning 90%+ of extra end games when they have the hammer. The no-tick rule coming soon will help. It should give a bit of a fighting chance to the team without the hammer, to create a bit more entertainment.

 

***

 Anyway, as I reflect on my 3rd and hopefully not last Brier, I am just so grateful for the experience.

A giant thank you goes out to those who supported us throughout our journey, both our sponsors and our fans. Thanks to the volounteers and fans in Lethbridge that helped make the event feel like the Brier after what has been 2 long years. 

The Brier is a tradition that I grew up watching and aspired to my whole curling life. The chance to be a part of it again is something I will remember forever.