Hear more about this subject and other curling topics from Jonathan Havercroft on Rocks Across the Pond: A Curling Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and TuneIn
From one perspective, curling has never been in better shape. The United States Men’s Olympic gold medal run sparked a curling boom in the U.S. Thousands showed up at open houses and USA Curling just announced its largest ever membership total – sitting at just over 22,000 curling club members.
The Grand Slam of Curling is expanding its offerings again by now including a women’s division in the Elite 10. The World Curling Federation just launched its new Curling World Cup series featuring tournaments on three different continents and significant coverage through online streaming and TV broadcasts.
When I moved to the U.S. in 2000, USA Curling had a membership of less than 10,000. Growing up in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, curling TV coverage was limited to the Scotties, the Brier and the TSN Skins Game. In terms of both the number of curlers (at least in the U.S.) and TV coverage, the game has never been stronger.
Despite all the good news, there are a few warning signs trouble may be brewing for the roaring game beneath the surface. Team Edin, despite winning an Olympic silver medal and the world championship last season had their funding cut. Curling clubs are closing in the Toronto area. And the opening bonspiel on the competitive curling calendar in Scotland was just cancelled due to lack of entries.
My worry is we are experiencing a curling bubble. In economics, a bubble is defined as a market cycle that experiences a rapid rise in an asset price followed by a sharp contraction – think of the 2008 housing market crash or any stock market crash.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
In the case of curling, what we are witnessing is a rapid influx of money into the elite end of the sport driving up the price of curlers (i.e. how much money a high level curler can expect to make in a season) and coaches (in the form of salary for coaches and high performance directors) that is unsustainable.
First, what is driving this bubble? In short, the answer is the Olympics. Once curling became an Olympic medal sport in 1998 it rapidly shifted from a sport played in a few wintery locales around the world (Canada, upper Midwest U.S., Scotland, Scandinavia and Switzerland) to a truly global game. But this shift was more driven by a top down process than the grassroots process that had shaped the game from the late 19th century though until 1998.
The old model consisted of local clubs of amateurs organizing local competitions, recruiting members each year and then the best from each club going on to competing in regional, national, and eventually global championships. Curling had a pyramid system that was based upon mass participation at the grassroots level that then fed the best of each club into increasingly competitive competitions the higher up the ladder a team or player went.
The new model consists of national Olympic committees targeting certain Olympic sports for possible medals and then investing large sums of money into a handful of sports over a four year Olympic cycle.
If your sport is lucky enough to be chosen, then the national governing body will need to hire a high-performance director and coaches and then select a group of athletes they will train over the four-year cycle with the target of winning a medal at the end of the cycle. If the country wins a medal, then it can get more money for the next cycle. But if the country underperforms, then its funding can get cut and the entire high-performance program disappears.
Let’s take British Curling as an example. While Britain just missed the medal round in men’s and women’s curling at the 2018 Olympics, UK Sport (the agency that manages funding for British Olympic Sports) awarded British Curling £6.35 million ($8.3 million USD, $10.7 million CAD) in funding for the 2022 Olympic Cycle. But the same agency decided to cut all of the funding for wheelchair curling because the British Paralympic Team had its funding cut entirely. So if a country wins medals then it has a good chance of getting even more money for the next four years, but if it misses its target then all the money disappears.
More Money More Problems
On top of the feast-or-famine nature of Olympic funding, the new model concentrates all of the money into a handful of individuals. In the case of British Curling, this season they are funding three men’s teams, two women’s teams, and three mixed doubles teams. Over £6 million is being invested in fewer than 30 curlers.
While the exact number of teams and players receiving funding may shift over the course of the cycle, the new model identifies a handful of the best curlers, gives them elite level training over a four year cycle, and underwrites the cost of them playing a rigorous schedule of events on the World Curling Tour. A few coaches in Europe have told me the ballpark figure for funding a team is around 100,000 Euros ($118,000 USD, $150,000 CAD) per season. So even though £6 million may seem like a lot of money, you can see how quickly a national governing body can spend that amount, as that figure only covers the travel costs and entry fees for teams. Once an organization adds in money for staff, equipment, and the others costs associated with high performance curling the money disappears pretty quickly.
I worry this is creating a bubble because the new model is wreaking havoc with the old model. If you look at entries in playdowns for national championships, the numbers are way down. In the late 1990s in Montreal, the Brier playdowns would have 40–50 teams enter each year (and I remember back then how the old-timers were complaining about the declining numbers) – just competing for the right to get out of the city. Last year, fewer than 25 teams entered the Brier playdowns in all of Quebec. Similarly in Scotland, last year there was no playdown process for the Scottish Championship because fewer than 10 teams signed up.
What is happening is fewer and fewer competitive curlers are signing up because they do not see the point in competing against teams that are fully funded and can play full time. This in turn leads not just to fewer people entering playdowns, but fewer and fewer people even bothering to curl at all. Fewer curlers at the club level means less revenue to sustain clubs, more clubs closing and then fewer places to curl.
In the long run it means fewer talented curlers coming up from the junior ranks and fewer opportunities for a country to cultivate the next generation of elite curling talent. The short-term pursuit of a gold medal in one Olympic cycle might come at the cost of medals in future Olympic cycles. If a country misses the podium in an Olympic cycle then it may not have any funding for curling for the next four years. Then the bubble bursts, and a country’s curling scene is significantly smaller than it was before.
See You at the Crossroads
I think curling is at a very significant crossroads. The game could truly go global, especially if the heightened attention from the Olympics sparks a curling club boom in the U.S. and China (the two most important media markets in the world right now). In that case, perhaps curling ends up like golf or tennis with a well-funded professional tour and a vibrant amateur game for the weekend warriors.
But curling, if it is not careful, could end up like skeleton. UK Sport is giving skeleton £7.4 million over the next Olympic cycle. Team GB has historically done very well in skeleton and so it continues to get funding for its high performance athletes.
Unfortunately, if a British child watches skeleton at the Olympics and wants to take up the sport they can’t. There are no skeleton tracks in the UK. In fact there are only seventeen skeleton tracks in the world! It is a sport where mass participation is impossible.
While all the developments at the elite level of the sport are exciting, we need to make sure the growing attention the game is receiving helps to grow the game at the grassroots level.
I’m not saying that curling should quit the Olympics. Nor am I trying to crush anyone’s Olympic dream. But if curling is only about the Olympics and if all the money and volunteer resources are just fed into pursuing the Olympic dream, then the game risks undermining the base of its pyramid. And like a giant tower of Jenga blocks, if you take too many blocks away from the base, then whole structure ends up falling down.