Manitoba Open roars into action
World’s biggest bonspiel back after two-year hiatus
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The return of the Manitoba Open is a massive deal to curling clubs across the city.
For the 13 rinks that host the world’s largest bonspiel, it’s arguably the most important week of the year as it gets more people through the doors, it brings awareness to their facility, and it generates a nice chunk of revenue as curlers typically aren’t shy to head upstairs to enjoy a caesar or two.
The event, formerly known as the MCA Bonspiel, was sidelined the past two years because of the pandemic, but it made its official return on Thursday night. The action goes until Monday night.
“It’s definitely a financial boost to all the clubs involved, but it’s more about the community. We’re going to see people that we’ve known for years that we haven’t seen (since COVID),” said Fort Rouge Curling Club president Erik Wallace.
“I’ll be running into people all over the place that will be saying ‘Hey! How have you been?’ And you know, the kids will be two years older. Anywhere we go this weekend, we’ll run into people we know and we’ll be reacquainting in a way that you can’t do otherwise.”
The 2023 edition sees 187 teams competing for the full bonspiel and 65 more in the half ‘spiel. The last one in 2020 had 224 teams in the full and 64 in the half. The drop off isn’t surprising as most clubs around town haven’t returned to their pre-COVID registration numbers just yet.
The pandemic obviously didn’t help, but a more prominent concern for the Manitoba Open, and clubs in general, is a lack of young players. This isn’t a new problem, but if the event is ever going to be anything like it was in the ’80s when 800-plus teams consistently registered and forced schedule makers to have draws at midnight, an influx of youth is needed.
“Somehow, we have to make the experience at a club feel like whatever a 30-year-old today feels is a great experience and somehow present that to them in a way that was presented to us like it was back the late ’70s and ’80s,” said Wallace.
“We typically have leagues, you sign up and play a 20-game season, but we might have to change that philosophy and have a shorter amount of games. Or mixed doubles… it’s an exciting event… and the games are over quickly and it might fit more into what young people are looking for today with shorter attention spans. Somehow, we have to present it to young people, whether it’s some kind of involvement with their phones and social media, because curling is a game you can play all your life. I’ve played all kinds of team sports and there’s no team sport like curling.”
It’s not always the same foursome that makes the trip, but a group of friends from Virginia have been coming up north to play in the Manitoba Open since 2016. Sam Sparks, a 36-year-old now living in Seattle, and Austin Shawinsky, a 34-year-old who recently moved to New Hampshire, are back in the Manitoba capital again this week to represent Virginia curling, even though they have since moved elsewhere.
“It’s definitely a tradition for us. It’s always on the calendar and it’s always expected that we’re going to be gone from our families this week,” said Sparks.
Shawinsky added: “We just really like everyone who’s up here. We like how everyone is hospitable up here in Winnipeg, so we have a good time and every club has treated us really good.”
As for their curling clubs back home, a youth movement is not an issue for them. Sparks and Shawinsky said the majority of the members at their rinks, especially the ones further down south, are under 40.
“We have a lot of bonspiels that are dedicated to people that have five years of experience or less only,” said Sparks.
“We played in a fun one in North Carolina called the ‘Over-Under’ where you have to have two people with under five years’ experience and you have two people with over five years’ experience to kind of get that mix and help the younger generation get up to speed a little bit and help them learn some cool stuff.”
Lisa Birchard, a 29-year-old out of Pembina Curling Club, is playing in her second Manitoba Open. Her teammate, Kelsey Meger, took over Pembina’s social media in order to try and help the club reach a younger demographic. But for Birchard, it’s not just about getting younger, it’s about getting more people from different backgrounds.
“I think anyone can walk into a curling club and see that diversity is lacking,” Birchard said.
“(In October), Pembina hosted a specific learn to curl for women and we had all sorts of women from diverse backgrounds and they said ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was a sport I could enjoy and play.’ We’re hoping that’s something that can help the sport grow.”
Birchard believes clubs need to advertise more and reach out to different groups and offer to host them for curling workshops. She hopes that would also generate more interest in the Manitoba’s famous annual bonspiel.
“The atmosphere at the Manitoba Open is something in itself,” said Birchard.
“It’s something you can’t explain. You have to go and experience it.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...