April 8, 2020

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Opinion

How do you define the heart of a national championship?

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward</p><p>Team Wild Card skip, Jennifer Jones and Team Ontario skip, Rachel Homan toss stones at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Wednesday. Jones, Homan and a few other women's curlers make up the small number of competitors that receive the lion's share of the television coverage during the round robin portion of the annual tournament.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Team Wild Card skip, Jennifer Jones and Team Ontario skip, Rachel Homan toss stones at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Wednesday. Jones, Homan and a few other women's curlers make up the small number of competitors that receive the lion's share of the television coverage during the round robin portion of the annual tournament.

MOOSE JAW, Sask. — Even before the round robin at the 2020 Scotties was over, there were a whole lot of curling fans that were already sick of watching Chelsea Carey or Kerri Einarson or Rachel Homan. It’s a malaise that pops up every year at the Canadian women’s curling championship, and for good reason: they do take the lion’s share of televised focus.

The imbalance works out well for Manitobans, but that’s because our teams are usually the stars of the show. For others, particularly those who live east of Ontario, it can feel as if "they don’t care about us," one fan wrote bluntly on Twitter. A quick look at the TV coverage supports why they’d get that impression.

There are 14 draws in the round robin of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which means 28 spots for a featured team. Of the first 24 spots, only three went to a team that wasn’t Carey (4), Laura Walker (4), Kerri Einarson (3), Robyn Silvernagle (3), Krista McCarville (3), Homan (2) or Jennifer Jones (2). That’s less than half of the teams in the field, taking up 88 per cent of the first-half TV focus.

It wasn’t until the 13th draw — an important match between British Columbia’s Corryn Brown and Nova Scotia’s Mary-Anne Arsensault — that TSN’s feature didn’t include at least one of Carey, Homan, Einarson, Jones or Walker. Of the 16 regions, only 10 got a slide on a feature sheet.

It’s transparent. Not only are those the top stars of the sport here, they are also from curling’s biggest viewing markets. Still, when you add the championship round and playoffs, we’ll be seeing them the whole week; surely, there were chances in the early round-robin draws to show others.

That lopsided focus is getting more dramatic, not less. TSN has significant input into the event, and this year the schedule was tweaked to put more marquee matchups into prime time. Previously, each draw featured only one round-robin group. Now, all but the final two draws are split: two games from Pool A, two from Pool B.

To be fair, it doesn’t mean the other teams are ignored. TSN broadcaster and Manitoba curling icon Cathy Gauthier does fine work keeping tabs on the other games going. The overall strategies can’t be captured, but there aren’t too many critical shots — from skips, anyway — that fans watching at home don’t get to see.

Still, given the fact it’s the one chance each year for curling fans to see talent that doesn’t play in the grand slams, it seems a shame we don’t get to know them better. Some of the most interesting and delightful games at this Scotties didn’t get focal attention, just because they didn’t have the right names on their jackets.

Rookie Brown is tons of fun to watch, and the team has been a great story here. So was Team Nunavut, skipped by 1997 Ontario champion and curling podcaster Lori Eddy; not only did they have an emotional win over McCarville on Tuesday morning, but they also pushed Carey to a Wednesday nail-biter, neither game the feature.

And Prince Edward Island’s Suzanne Birt, who has many times played giant-killer, finished the round robin 5-2 and goes into the championship round in a pretty decent position; her team was never chosen as an initial TSN feature sheet during the round robin.

It’s hard to see a solution. TSN wants eyeballs in exchange for its investment, and the sport is not geographically balanced. The focus on elite teams is a practical decision, not a bias. If New Brunswick produced a team whose every game made playoff waves, we’d see it; Newfoundland’s Brad Gushue is hardly pining for TV time.

Still, it’s absolutely understandable if fans get bored with seeing the same five or so teams in different configurations all week long. Five years ago, TSN brought in two broadcast teams at the Brier national men’s championship, to show double feature sheets; the experiment must not have been successful, because it never happened again.

This isn’t just a question about TV coverage. The entire issue is emblematic of the wider tension present in curling, from the provincial level on up. It’s not getting any better, as stakes and investment get higher, and attempted fixes only open up new sets of problems to navigate.

Consider how Curling Canada changed the Scotties and Brier format in 2018, guaranteeing berths for all regions and adding a wild-card team. The move was meant, in part, to make the tournaments truly pan-Canadian while shoring up depth of field, but in so doing it became less truly "national" by eliminating the full round robin.

Meanwhile, even with the wild card, the national fields are reliably less competitive than other top-tier events. One idea has been floating around for a while: if the point is to send the best representative to the world championship, then the winner of the Canada Cup should be that delegate, effectively returning the Scotties and Brier to a club title.

To put it lightly, I don’t see that happening. The Scotties and Brier are Curling Canada’s most valuable brands, and there’s nothing quite like the culture that has grown up around them. It’s not just the teams. It’s the volunteers, the sponsors, the Patch, the entire machinery built up to celebrate the game of curling.

This is a confounding sport, but that’s what makes it so special. It’s poised on the razor’s edge between professional and amateur. Fans feel an arguably unparalleled amount of investment in its development. And while the sport’s top end is pulling away, the greats can and do fall to talented club teams with nothing to lose.

So really, it’s all a question of how to define the heart of a national championship. Is it about watching the best curling and biggest names, or is it about celebrating the sport across Canada? Can you grow it where it needs it by attention alone, or does that growth have to come first? How does equal respect for the competitors factor in?

Every fan, it seems, has a slightly different answer to those questions, and that’s what makes curling unique. 

So one doesn’t envy anyone at Curling Canada who has to make decisions on how to manage the tension between curling’s folksy roots and its increasingly high-performance future — or, for that matter, between what diehards want versus TSN’s primary interests. But for those of us on the outside, it’s sure fun to debate. 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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