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Curling can’t rest on laurels

Richmond Curling Centre office manager Kim Thompson and general manager Doug Bradley invite everyone to give curling a try. - Don Fennell photo
Richmond Curling Centre office manager Kim Thompson and general manager Doug Bradley invite everyone to give curling a try.
— image credit: Don Fennell photo

One of Canada’s greatest winter traditions, curling is at a crossroads.

Immediately after the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the phone at the Richmond Curling Centre—and most others throughout the nation—seemed to ring constantly. The success of the host nation (Kevin Martin’s team won gold in the men’s competition and Cheryl Bernard silver in the women’s) spawned an immediate boost of interest in the sport.

“We enjoyed a huge increase in participation after the Olympics when it seemed everybody wanted to try curling,” says Doug Bradley, the longtime manager at the Richmond Curling Centre.

“Our rental business was up 25 per cent over night and league curling was up probably 10 per cent or more.,” he says. “We were packed solid.”

 

The 2012-13 season is just being organized, but it’s already apparent the rapid growth has slowed—a reminder to the curling fraternity not to take anything for granted.

“We’re always trying to do a lot of marketing, and things like mail-outs to everyone who’s curled in the last two years,” says Bradley. “I think we have to do more than let the game sell itself, so we really focus on service. Like going to  the theatre or golfing, curling is a form of entertainment and they’ve got to be enjoying themselves. We have to treat curlers more like clients who are coming in all the time. We want to ensure there’s a smile on their face when they come in as well as when they leave.”

The Richmond Curling Centre recently changed its name from the Richmond Curling Club to emphasize that it is open to the public, and is not a private venture. At the same time, Bradley says it’s important the curling centre is still seen as a place within the community to socialize, much as it’s seen as a gathering place in smaller towns.

“The large metropolises basically have everything, so we have to do different things to attract people,” he says. “We need to make sure their experience is positive every time they come out. If they’re not happy once, they’ll try something else.”

While attracting new curlers is an ongoing challenge, the average age of a regular curler in Richmond is in the 40s (30 in the Sunday evening league). That’s notable because there are 200 master players (55 years and older).

Twenty-something, Kim Thompson represents the future of curling.

Despite her youth, Thompson is a seasoned veteran of the sport. She grew up in a curling family and has enjoyed much success along with her younger sister Kelly including competing in the B.C. Scotties provincial ladies’ championship. But it’s at the grassroots level she enjoys the game just as much.

Recently, she gathered members from her slo-pitch team for a curling game “just for something to do.” A few others had also curled, but at least half were former school mates —inundated with curling stories and how much fun was being had.

“They decided to come and give it a try, seeing it as a good excuse to do something active and then being able to have a few beverages afterwards,” says Thompson. “Curling is a very social sport, but the hardest things is to get them in. There’s a misconception among many that it’s a slow game, which comes from watching it on TV. I find there’s a lot more interest once they’ve had a chance to try it.”

For some, time is another obstacle.

A typical eight- to 10-end game requires two to three hours to complete. But more notable is that fewer people—in today’s fast-paced world—are willing to commit to a full season. As a result, Thompson says curling centres are exploring such options as a 10-week season.

“If they like it, then they can commit to another 10 weeks,” she says, noting that it also helps that the games are played on the same night and at the same venue.

“It’s also a relatively inexpensive game to get into,” says Thompson.

The cost for regular league players averages out to about $13 per week, which includes almost as much practice ice as they can fit into their schedule.

A group of eight non-league players can rent a sheet of ice for two hours for less than $20 per person (including equipment).

Ongoing efforts are also being made to introduce curling to youth. The most widespread of these is the Rocks & Rings program, with specialized equipment  brought into schools for a day-long demonstration in the gym.

Curl BC executive director Scott Braley is encouraged by the interest, with about 30,000 students participating in the program in B.C. since it debuted four years ago.

Braley acknowledges, however, the challenge is then to help those students find their way to the local curling rinks and into the junior programs.

One encouraging bit of news, he says, is that the provincial junior girls’ and boys’ championships will be televised for the first time Jan. 1-6, 2013.

“I feel by having our young curlers on TV, that will help encourage a few of the younger ones who will see them playing a high level,” says Braley.

 

But much more is needed to help ensure curling has a bright future, and not merely maintain its existing numbers. That includes more creative marketing and adding new opportunities such as a two-on-two version of curling.

Instead of the traditional four players per team, two players (one woman and one man) compete for each team in a mixed doubles game, an idea that developed from the mixed doubles event at the Continental Cup of Curling in 2008. At the start of each end, two rocks start in play—one in front of the house and the other (from the opposite team) in the ring. Five rocks are played by each team, with one player throwing the first and last rocks and the other the remaining three rocks. A game can be completed in well under half the standard two- to three-hour game.

The mixed game, which has a world championship, is gaining so much momentum that there’s talk of it becoming an Olympic event as soon as 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, says Braley.

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