Every four years the typical Winter Olympics viewer goes through a series of reactions something like this:
Confused: “Curling?! What the heck’s that?”
Dismissive: “That guy looks like some dude from my bowling team. I could do that!”
Intrigued: “So what’s happening here? How is he going to get his red rock past those yellow rocks?”
Armchair athlete: “Really? He’s going to aim there? There’s no way he’s going to make that shot!”
Fan: “WOW! He did it! When is this on TV again?”
Curling is a top contender for the most accessible sport in the Olympics, full of people you could easily picture having beers with you or teaching you how to play their sport.
Curling is accessible, full of people you could easily picture having beers with…
“You probably don’t envision flinging yourself off a ski jump or even getting in a hockey rink with people that are professional,” says Rick Patzke, USA Curling’s chief operating officer.
But plenty of Americans can envision themselves curling, and they have taken up the sport, fueled by plentiful broadcasts on NBC’s networks with every Olympics. This year, NBC will once again spread many hours of curling coverage across CNBC, MSNBC and USA.
The challenge for USA Curling is to convert that quadrennial boom of viewers and players into a lasting presence — and top-flight national teams.
Like golf, curling has ancient roots but had its modern birth in Scotland, then flirted with full-fledged Olympic status before joining the Games program in 1998. The sport requires a bit of coordination to slide across ice and aim heavy rocks down the curling sheet, and it requires a sharp tactical mind. The object is to get your team’s rocks closer to the middle of the target (“house”) than the opponent’s team, and you get a point for each one that’s closer after every set of eight rocks each (an “end”).
The frigid Great Lakes states have tons of well-established curling clubs, but now you can go curling at USA Curling-affiliated clubs that have sprung up all over the map from San Diego, California to Richmond, Virginia. There are currently 165 clubs in 42 states.
The sport requires a bit of coordination to slide across ice and aim heavy rocks at a target, and it requires a sharp tactical mind.
Some clubs get ice time at a local arena while others have their own dedicated facilities — one of the newest is under construction for the Coyotes Curling Club in Arizona.
“We are repurposing a warehouse in Tempe,” Coyotes vice president Darryl Horsman said by email. “Our goal is to be throwing rocks by mid-January and to be ready to handle the tsunami wave of curling interest during and after the Sochi Olympics!”
As it stands now, Coyote club members — along with many curlers across the country — use a refined routine of sweeping, dropping water to form “pebbles,” moving the heavy curling rocks and other tasks to transform a skating rink into curling ice. The Coyote club has it down to about 20 minutes.
“It’s a lot like the brooms in Fantasia !” Horsman said.
There are currently 165 curling clubs in 42 states.
The USA also has a college curling championship. If you want to play on a power team, however, better work on your SAT scores: MIT is the 2011 champion and took third in 2013.
All told, USA Curling membership is up 48 percent since 2001, the year before the sport got its big break in the States with the Salt Lake City Olympic broadcasts.
Between the upcoming Olympics and the club’s new facility, Horsman is expecting another boom: “We started with 12 members back in 2003 and sit roughly at 110 right now. We forecast that with the demand for curling in Arizona, we should be able to hit our target mark of 300 quickly.”
The new curlers won’t be world-class right away, no more than someone would be a Masters champion on the first trip to a golf course. But a deeper talent pool won’t hurt.
The U.S. men had some success with three world titles in the 1970s; the women won the World Championship in 2003; and the men took a bronze medal in the 2006 Olympics. The 2010 Olympics didn’t go as well, and the U.S. men’s middling performances in the last few World Championships mean the men must go through a qualifying event in Germany just to get to Sochi.
USA Curling has stepped up its efforts at the game’s top levels, launching a High Performance program in 2010 for what Patzke described as “probably more of a six-year plan to help top U.S. players sharpen their game.” Meanwhile Asian countries and smaller European nations are showing some determination to join the traditional Scandinavian and Scottish elite.
“The rest of the world has certainly increased its competitiveness,” Patzke said.
Perennial power Canada takes curling very seriously — though not too seriously. Canadian broadcaster TSN is planning a broadcast featuring Will Ferrell in character as Anchorman Ron Burgundy.
Canada’s regular broadcasts and news coverage ensure that its curlers, while not making a fortune, gain some name recognition. By contrast, in the U.S., broadcasting is limited outside the Olympics, leaving fans to rely on whatever they can find online.
“Unfortunately, we’re not overburdened with sponsors,” Patzke says, stressing that the existing sponsors (including Nike) are terrific.
Most people find very quickly that it’s much harder than it looks, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Rick Patzke, COO of USA Curling
Still, this year’s American team is recognizable. Women’s skip (the leader of a curling team or “rink”) Erika Brown is returning to the Olympics after a 16-year absence and leads a virtual all-star team including 2002 veteran Ann Swisshelm and 2006 veteran Jessica Schultz.
Brown’s vice skip, Debbie McCormick, is one of the most accomplished curlers in U.S. history. She was on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams, skipped a U.S. team to the world championship in 2003 and skipped the U.S. Olympic team in 2010. Bringing aboard such an experienced skip as vice skip is a bit like hiring U.S. national men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant coach.
Shuster played on Pete Fenson’s U.S. Championship rinks in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and he won bronze with Fenson in 2006 before splitting out on his own to win a U.S. title in 2009 and skip the 2010 Olympic team.
The U.S. is competitive in the new event of mixed doubles — a slightly shorter game with only two people per team. With the Winter Olympics in expansion mode, the World Curling Federation is pushing to include the sport in the Games as soon as 2018.
Which provides more opportunities for players to get hooked on the game: “It’s something people feel like they have a chance to do,” Patzke says. “The perception is ‘I could do that.’ We certainly welcome that. We want more and more people competing. Most people find very quickly that it’s much harder than it looks, but it’s also a lot of fun. People stay with it, and the sport grows.”
Why you should care
Hey, if Ron Burgundy is covering the curling trials this weekend you know it’s cool.