Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What's a curler to do?

World champion struggling to find title sponsor

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He's the defending world men's curling champion and comes into this fresh new curling season off one of the most memorable years in his long and storied career.

But Jeff Stoughton also enters the new curling season without a title sponsor for his team.

For the first time in what he estimates is close to 20 years, Winnipeg's two-time world champion and three-time Brier champion was unable to find a single company willing to pony up the cash required to have their name associated with his team in the capacity of a title sponsor -- front and centre on all the team's uniforms.

Of the two title sponsors Stoughton had last year, one bolted and the other signed on this year for a reduced sponsorship package. And while Stoughton did sign on some new sponsors this year, none were willing to pay for the top package -- which for elite curling teams can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per year.

"It's a bit disappointing, especially after the year we had," Stoughton said Wednesday.

Now, it's hardly news that a curler had a difficult time drumming up sponsorship money. That's always been a problem in a sport that remains, despite huge TV ratings, much more amateur than it is pro.

But what is news is that it is happening to a defending world men's curling champion, the rarest class of curling team and one that can generally be counted upon -- thanks to recent success and name recognition -- to be among the only teams in the sport who don't have trouble finding sponsors.

And what's most interesting -- if not necessarily surprising -- is the answer some companies have been giving Stoughton as their reason for not signing on.

"We had a few say they might have been interested but they just didn't have the money because they'd spent it all on Jets tickets," said Stoughton.

"Put it to you this way: there were no open doors or open arms or, 'Hey, you did great, let us jump on...' We never got a bite. All summer we were banging doors as much as four guys can, working the phones, all of it."

The skip adds that the one big new sponsor the team did sign -- a local agriculture company -- did so only after the money the company had ear-marked for Jets tickets went unused when, like so many Manitobans, they got shut out.

"They said it was good," Stoughton said, "because it freed up some money for them to support us for the next few years."

With all the millions of dollars that got poured into the Winnipeg Jets season ticket frenzy last summer, it was feared that corporate money that might otherwise go to local amateur sport would get sucked up in the bottomless pit of NHL hockey.

It's hard to know if Stoughton's experience is an isolated episode or the first hard evidence of the phenomenon. But he's certainly not alone among curlers who had a hard time drumming up cash in the off-season.

Cathy Overton-Clapham is the defending Manitoba champion, winningest female curler in Manitoba history and, judging by the near universal support for her after she was fired by Jennifer Jones last year, one of the most popular curlers in Canada.

But she's also another curler who couldn't find a title sponsor over the summer.

"It was just really tough out there this year," said Overton-Clapham. "But it's always tough, so that's nothing new."

Both Overton-Clapham and Stoughton say they're continuing to seek title sponsorships to help underwrite the costly bonspiel season that all elite teams must compete in to prepare for the provincial and national playdowns that follow after Christmas.

Unlike Overton-Clapham, Stoughton at least has federal government support to draw on. As the defending world champion, the Stoughton foursome -- which also includes third Jon Mead, second Reid Carruthers and lead Steve Gould -- are A-carded athletes by Sport Canada and receive about $1,500 a month each (tax free) for at least a year.

It's not exactly NHL money, but it's better than nothing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2011 C6

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