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Brier attendance won't even reach hog line

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KAMLOOPS, B.C. -- You would think all the recent excitement surrounding the gold-medal victories by this country's two curling teams in Sochi would translate into a bump in attendance at the country's largest annual curling event, the Tim Hortons Brier.

But you would think wrong.

Because not only did it become crystal clear on a sparsely attended opening weekend at the Interior Savings Centre that Jennifer Jones and Brad Jacobs don't have much in the way of coattails at the turnstiles, it has now become evident the 2014 Brier is going to go down as the worst-attended Brier in a quarter-century.

Consider the numbers:

Just 10,427 fans attended the first four draws on Saturday and Sunday, an average of just 2,607 per draw for an event that averaged over 9,000 per draw last year in Edmonton. While organizers say ticket sales are better for the final weekend of this event, it's already abundantly clear this is almost certainly going to go down as the worst-attended Brier since just 45,220 turned up in Chicoutimi, Que. in 1988.

So how can that be? How can it be that the first major curling event following Sochi -- and one that normally draws total crowds in the six figures -- would be such a dud when all the buzz during the Sochi Games was how curling had stolen the show, generating boffo TV ratings not just in Canada but in the United States, Europe and even such curling backwaters as Brazil?

Good question, it turns out.

"If I knew the answer to that question, I'd probably be a wealthy man," Warren Hansen, the longtime events director for the Canadian Curling Association, said Sunday. "Who knows? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"But I'm stymied on this. We needed to sell at least 4,000 seats a draw to make this work and I never thought that would be a challenge -- the Brier hasn't been in B.C. for 20 years, the economy here is pretty good, it's the right demographic.

"It should have worked. Why it hasn't? It's a mystery to me."

And making matters worse for the CCA is this dud of a Brier comes on the heels of a Canadian women's curling championship in Montreal at the end of January that was also very sparsely attended. Just 39,063 spectators attended the 22 draws at this year's Scotties at Maurice Richard Arena, making it the second-worst-attended Scotties in 25 years, ranking ahead of only a disastrous event in Vancouver in 1997 that attracted 38,598.

Now, some context is in order. Because this was an Olympic year, CCA organizers deliberately chose to go off the beaten path with their two marquee events, having learned from previous Olympic cycles that national Canadian events don't draw particularly well when they play second fiddle to the Olympics in the same winter.

Indeed, of the three major events the CCA held this winter, only the Roar of the Rings at the MTS Centre in December -- which propelled Jones and Jacobs to Sochi -- could be judged even a modest success, with a total crowd of 136,771.

"The Olympic years have always been tough -- all the focus goes on the Olympic teams and the Olympics and these events become secondary," Hansen explained. "Our audience gets worn out and they know that the Brier -- and even the world championships -- are somewhat anticlimactic."

So where does this leave the CCA, which counts on the Scotties and Brier to generate a big chunk of the money the country's national curling body needs to operate every year? Hansen says the good news this year is corporate sponsorships nationally and locally have been strong, even if ticket sales haven't been.

And he says the organization has cash reserves that will allow it to carry on business uninterrupted.

"We have a substantial war chest -- we can take a hit. But we can't take too many of them."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 C1

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