It remains, by any measure, a purely amateur sport.
While the popularity of curling has grown exponentially -- especially internationally -- since the sport's introduction as an Olympic medal sport in Nagano in 1998, there has still been no one yet who makes a full-time living doing nothing but curling.
What has changed, however, is what it costs mid-level competitive teams to keep up with the Joneses -- those elite teams like Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones who have big corporate sponsorships and, often, tax-free government money to play their sport at the highest levels.loa
While no curler will ever be accused of getting rich off the sport, the richest in the game -- the elites like Jones in the women's game and the likes of Kevin Martin in the men's game -- are believed to have gotten richer in the past decade as corporations increasingly see value in having their brand associated with the next potential Olympic gold medallist.
But that is, at best, a guess. Most curlers -- even those at the highest level -- do not report curling winnings or sponsorships as income, even though Revenue Canada has served notice in going after Ontario curler Wayne Middaugh in recent years that they consider curling winnings income like anything else earned by athletes.
The result is the curlers themselves are generally loath to discuss any of their team finances in detail (lest the tax man perk up) and most information about the financial ups and downs of curling emerge only in dribs and drabs and with questionable veracity.
And that's a problem, if for no other reason than the first step in dealing with a problem is figuring out if you have one.
On the surface, it would appear clear there is such a problem in curling. This is a sport that is celebrated, remember, for being almost uniquely egalitarian, a sport where fans like to point out it is possible for an ordinary club team to play its way, on nothing but its own merit, all the way from a Saturday night rec league to the gold medal podium at the Olympics.
At least in theory. Because in practice, the evidence of recent years would suggest that quaint -- and entirely lovable -- notion is now the stuff of mythology as the elite curling teams like the Joneses and Martins, Howards and Bernards, use the advantage of money to put some distance between them and the rest of the field in the quest for national championships and, ultimately, the Olympics.
If it feels like, in other words, that it's been the same teams year-in-and-year-out lately on the podium, that's because it mostly has been.
So what are the rest of the teams to do? How do you compete with the elite if you don't have a curling resume with national and world titles on it to attract the corporate bucks and Sport Canada funding?
You get creative, says the Chelsea Carey team. The Carey team have agreed this season to provide the Free Press with unfettered access to their teams finances in response to a request from this newspaper to use their team to illustrate the challenges and financial ups and downs of trying to keep up with the top teams these days.
Newly configured this winter in an amalgamation of two of the province's best women's skips in Carey and third Kristy Jenion and a trusty front end in Kristen Foster and Lindsay Titheridge, the foursome is determined to begin a new four-year Olympic cycle by getting out on the bonspiel trail and testing their team by playing against the very best most weekends.
That's not cheap, however. And where a team like Jones, with some rich sponsorships, will almost certainly be in the black this winter regardless of whether they win a single dime, the Carey foursome must count on some creative fundraising off the ice, penny-pinching on the road and some success on the ice to keep the season from ending in financial disaster.
"I don't care so much if I win any money," says the skip, "as much as I just don't want to be shelling out thousands of dollars at the end of the year."
For the Carey team this season, that's meant everything from hosting a fundraiser at Hooters to building a flashy team website to beating on doors looking for sponsors. And also -- in the case of the skip and Jenion -- even agreeing to pose for a calendar, in part to raise awareness of their team and build, in at least a rudimentary fashion, a brand that they can sell.
"We don't have one of those big curling names like some other teams do," Carey says. "And so we know we have to be a little more creative in how we go about raising money."
But for all their efforts, the single best thing the Carey team has done for their finances this winter has been on the ice, where the foursome is putting together a season the likes of which none of them have ever before been a part of.
In six World Curling Tour events, the Carey foursome have qualified for the playoff round in four of them. They won the top prize in the biggest one of all, a $60,000 Women's Grand Slam event at the Fort Rouge Curling Club in late October and finished second in another Slam event in Halifax last weekend.
Put it together and the team has already accomplished something only a tiny handful of teams in Canada will accomplish this season -- they have ensured they will turn at least a tiny profit for their efforts this season.
And that, they say, is a rarity.
"The most I've ever earned in a season is $2,000," says Carey. "Ever. That was my best season."
And Jenion? "Five hundred bucks. That's the most. Ever. It's just always been -- 'Pray to break even.'"
Foster says she has no illusions. "We're never going to make a living at this," she says. "We're happy to just break even."
Foster is a university student, the only member of the Carey team that is not also juggling a full time job -- Carey is in sales, Jenion works at a furniture manufacturer, and Titheridge is a nurse.
Carey says the demands of curling all winter have cost her most dearly in her career. "I've turned down jobs that pay a lot more money just because of curling," she says. "There's a lot of sacrifices like that in trying to do what we do."
The Free Press will check back with the Carey team periodically over the winter to see how they're making out, on the ice and off.