The traditionally popular Canadian sport of curling has a unique characteristic that is causing it to slide down a slippery slope, and into big trouble: Something needs to be done before one of our national games falls into an abyss from which it cannot rise back.
Unlike most other major spectator sports, which are arguably better to watch in person, curling is much more enjoyable to watch on TV, and this has caused attendance at live curling competitions to sink like a stone for the past decade.
This year’s Brier in Calgary (the Canadian Mens Curling Championship) could only attract 154,835 paying customers, down from 241,126 fans who came out to the Saddledome in 2009.
And it is not because curling fans are too cheap to buy tickets. There used to be a debate whether or not to “black out” games that take place in the city that is hosting them, but that was pretty much settled in the 70s. Logic had dictated that sports fans wouldn’t pay to attend games which were available free on local TV.
The owners of professional sports teams eventually learned that broadcasting their games on TV is the best way to promote their product.
There are always enough fans who enjoy the atmosphere of a live experience to fill the venues, so football, hockey, baseball, basketball and curling made every effort to make their sports available on TV whether they took place at home or away.
The problem with curling is that the home which has a rec room underneath it provides an experience which is immensely superior to attending the games in person.
Curling has been called “a mix of shuffleboard and cleaning your kitchen,” but there is no doubt it is an exciting game of strategy and athleticism filled with pressure-packed circus shots that are a thrill to watch.
The problem is that you can’t see most of what is going on from most of the seats in a large arena.
For example, when you are sitting at one end of a sheet of ice, you cannot see exactly what happens when rocks arrive at the house at the other end. Unless you are sitting in the nose bleed seats far away from the live action, it is impossible to catch the angles and nuances of the shots, and this is especially frustrating in clutch situations.
Curling is a game of inches that demands an overhead camera to determine exactly what is going on. What live curling really needs are overhead seats.
Meanwhile, there are definite advantages to watching other professional sports live.
Television coverage of football never shows you what receivers are open waiting for a pass. Each play begins with the camera focused on the quarterback until he throws the ball, and then you sit there for a few seconds staring blankly at that ball floating through the air hoping it is headed for an open receiver downfield.
When you are at the game, you can see which receivers are open because you are watching the entire field of play all at once.
It’s the opposite case in curling.
The difference is most sadly apparent when you watch folks like Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson glad hand and back slap their Knicks and Lakers immediately following a game while Mrs. Simmons is still running down the steps of an arena from a seat high enough and far enough away to follow the play that ended with her husband Pat winning with a most thrilling and dramatic last rock draw to the button.
Following this year’s Brier, the Canadian Curling Association was quoted blaming the drop in attendance on “fabulous TV coverage”.
The CCA is missing the point.
All professional sports benefit from “fabulous” TV coverage, but curling is the only one which almost compels fans to stay home because you can see the game so much better there.
Television allowed golf to make PGA tour stops almost as popular as major events like the U.S. Open, while only the Brier and the Scott Tournament of Hearts still attract a decent quantity of live fans.
Corporate-sponsored tournaments featuring even more of the big names in curling are played in front of mostly empty stands.
Ratings for TV broadcasts of curling remain high and the CCA is already talking about moving major competitions into smaller houses (6-9,000 seats) to maintain the atmosphere of a “packed house”. But how long are sponsors going to lay out big cash for games where the crowd noise sounds like a community club swim meet?
This is not the way to build the sport.
It is ironic that people keep predicting that elite sports like football and hockey will price their tickets outside the market for the average fan so that one day the seats will only be filled by corporate suits or none at all.
And it turns out that the most grassroots sport of them all is the one that is playing before empty houses.
Don Marks is a writer in Winnipeg.