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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: Canada vs. The World
Are we living with #FirstWorldProblems while the world struggles to #growthesport?

If you have been a loyal #TwineTime friend throughout this curling season, you would be very familiar with my #growthesport hashtag.  As a fan of the sport for almost my entire life, a concern seems to developing in recent years on the future of the sport.  The competitive curling numbers seem to be decreasing across Canada.  Even junior and club curling has seen a decrease, on average.  What is happening with the sport and how can we continue to see curling compete with other sport and social recreation options available to Canadians?

My recent trip to Swift Current to take in the opening weekend action at the Women's World Curling Championships brought an entire new perspective to the #growthesport hashtag.  Maybe the #growthesport issues in Canada are actually more #FirstWorldProblems than the big issue most of us are making it?  Let me explain before any of you get upset with me...

Look at the huge uproar we had entering the Scotties this season.  Many people were so disappointed power teams like Homan, Sweeting and Lawton were not on the ice competing.  What a travesty for the sport.  We have THAT many strong teams in our country where competing for a national championship is never a given.  Now let's compare to some European teams.  For many European nations having 5 or 6 teams competing ANNUALLY for their national title is considered a strong field.  In Canada we are complaining about a relegation/pre-qualification round we all dislike.  In Denmark or Sweden or Switzerland, they would love to have even 8 teams competing at the national championship.  And forget about qualifying through play downs and provincial championships first.

Canada is struggling with the identity of the sport and defining what the sport is....amateur vs. professional.  I'd call this a #FirstWorldProblem in comparison to the competition we see around the globe.  Other nations are competing for relevance, growth, future athletes.  One of the most powerful conversations I had on the topic in Swift Current was with Lene Nielson, skip of Team Denmark.  Nielson has finished fourth at the European Curling Championships five straight years...5!!!  You would think a strong, consistent result might be seen as a positive right?  Here is what Nielson and I discussed:

TwineTime (TT):  Let's talk about growing the sport of curling in Denmark.  From the silver medal at the Olympics (1998) to now, how have you seen the sport grow?  You have had some outstanding results at Europeans the past years as well, have you seen strong growth?

Lene Nielson (LN):  A bit.  We have a couple new junior teams back home.  Curling is not very big in Denmark so the only thing that gets attention is the Olympics.  You know even if I were to become a European Champion, I don't think it would matter as much.  This is why it is so important for Danish curling to get to the Olympics.

TT:  You mention the junior program starting to pick up, especially junior women.  You are obviously a great role model for them.  What can you do to help continue to grow the sport?

LN:  Just show how much fun curling can be and try to beat a couple of the really good teams competing here.  I need to try and get Denmark to the Olympics because I think that is where we are going to pick up more members at home.  Right now it is about showing how much fun curling is, how it is just one great big family and how everyone is enjoying it.

TT:  Excellent.  It looks like you guys have a lot of fun out there.

LN:  We really do!

Amazing!  Even winning a European Championship would not necessarily result in a strong growth for the sport in Denmark according to Nielson.  How crazy is that to think?  In Canada, a province finishes in fourth place or even medals at the Scotties or Brier and the provincial fans celebrate the tremendous result.  Nielson's comparison would be like Chelsea Carey winning the Scotties this year and having nobody in home province Alberta noticing or caring.  Imagine that scenario?  Hard to fathom isn't it?

Nielson isn't the only high profile skip in Europe to feel this way though.  On-ice success is only the starting point.  When I spoke with Eve Muirhead, skip for Team Scotland, she mentioned strong results help but more is needed:

TT:  In talking about growing the sport, with your success in curling, have you seen the sport grow in Scotland, especially with the juniors and for the women, based on your results over the past 7 years?

Eve Muirhead (EM):  Yeah I think it is important that we do keep growing the sport in Scotland.  It is hard.  We do get some publicity and grow the sport once every four years when the Olympics is on.  All we can really do is be successful at these events and try to encourage young people to take up the sport.  I think slowly Scotland is developing young curlers.  We saw Bruce Mouat taking back the gold at the World (Junior) Championship.  I think that does show there is young guys coming through.  It's obviously not as big as Canada just yet...but we are going to catch you.  *laughing*

TT:  *laughing*  Excellent.  I think that is what we can hope for honestly.  Do you think there is a way you can try and encourage more junior curlers, women especially, to compete?

EM:  I think the best way I can help, and my entire team, is to just be successful and showing that the sport is good fun.  As I said, if we can get medals and give the sport more publicity, get it on TV, get it in the papers, then more people will notice it.

To truly #growthesport, a combined effort needs to be made from a variety of different interest groups.  The athletes are a good start and their strong results for their nations helps.  But it is the age old question, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?  If Nielson or Muirhead were to win the world championship, would anyone back home know if there was no media coverage to support it?  The athletes, the media, the curling federations....everyone plays a pivotal role in the success of the sport and the true growth for the future.

Anna Sidorova, Team Russia skip and now three-time world bronze medal winner, echoed a similar comment:

TT:  On the topic of growing the sport in Russia, are you seeing a growth with the Olympics in Sochi and with your outstanding results the past couple of years?

Anna Sidorova (AS):  It is getting better.  If we compare the years to when I started to play curling and nowadays, there is a really big difference.  But still not a lot of people really know what curling is.  It is kind of a circle.  If we win, lots more people would know about the game.  We need to televise it but we don't do that very much right now.  It is a circle and some tough circumstances.

TT:  Is it similar to Canada in competing against hockey being one of the big sports?

AS:  You know it's not really an honest comparison.  Curling is a great game.  It is not only a tough game but it is also a mental game.  When you show the game on TV, it's almost impossible not to watch.  When you switch on TV, there is curling and you have all those eyes on the game.  Curling is a really good game and we have to show more of it on TV in Russia.

Both Muirhead and Sidorova make valid points on the need for stronger coverage of the sport.  Again, another point supporting Canada's #1stWorldProbs right now.  I would say media coverage has become a positive growth for the sport in Canada.  Sportsnet coverage of the grand slam events combined with the increased TSN coverage during their Season of Champions have certainly helped, as supported by the audience numbers.  Ok sure curling attendance numbers are down but television numbers are up.  This could have to do with economy, household finances, cost of attendance...lots of varying factors could be at play here.  But again, interest is not on a complete decline and the sport is still hovering on relevance in Canada....more than we can say in some of our friendly sport rivals unfortunately.

Newly crowned World Champion Binia Feltscher, Team Switzerland skip, also raised another interesting dynamic European nations have to deal with: competition.

TT:  With Switzerland winning 3 of the past 4 World Championships, have you seen a growth in the sport back home?  Are there more junior curlers?  More female curlers?  Is the sport growing back home?

Binia Feltscher (BF):  Maybe a little with juniors but not really big.  It's been ok though.

TT:  Do you think there is a way to grow the sport back in Switzerland?

BF:  In Switzerland it is about hockey and soccer and the other winter sports are really big.  It is hard to go against these sports.  I think as we continue to go up, maybe in a couple more years we can get a bit more near them.  But we are happy with the sport.

TT:  Excellent.  I guess just keep winning right?  And maybe a good opportunity to win at the Olympics too?

BF:  *laughing*  Oh yes, we would love that.

Canada competes with hockey for the majority of the curling season but really doesn't see too much competition from other sports in regards to coverage.  A bit of football during the overlap of both seasons perhaps.  Basketball generates strong interest but mainly in Eastern Canada.  As Feltscher notes, curling in Switzerland competes with hockey, soccer and many top Winter Olympic sports (ie: skiing, bobsled).  If you look at the Winter Olympic roster of sports, would we really say curling is having the toughest go of it for national media coverage in comparison to say skiing, luge, bobsled, speed skating?  You would be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Swedish champion skip Margaretha Sigfridsson provided a great answer on what needs to happen to see growth of curling in Sweden.

TT:  I'd like to ask you about growing the sport in Sweden.  Great female curlers have come from Sweden: Elisabet Gustafson, Anette Norberg, yourself.  Are you seeing junior curling, especially women, has been picking up in Sweden?

Margaretha Sigfridsson (MS):  Yeah it has been in the past few years.  A few of the younger teams are getting really good.  There is still a lot of work to be done to keep on growing, to keep bringing up good teams.

TT:  Do you have any ideas on how to grow the sport in Sweden?

MS:  I think it needs to be easy to access, the curling rinks, curling camps and curling courses.

Easy access!  What a concept!  Would anyone in Canada disagree with this point or say this is something we struggle with?  Again, a Canadian #FirstWorldProblem in growing the sport.  We have some outstanding curling clubs across our fine nation.  Our clubs are accessible to all Canadians.  There are numerous programs and camps and courses throughout the season for young curlers to become more involved.  The grassroots part of the sport continues to be a viable option for people.  As Sigfridsson notes, this is an area of opportunity in Sweden to help grow the sport.

What about outside of Europe you ask?  Look at Japan.  They are fresh off their first even medal finish at the World Championships.  Sure it was a tough loss in the final but Team Japan still won a silver medal and played outstanding all week....they certainly won over a new fan base!  With the success of China in the past and Korea hosting the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, Asia seems to be fully invested in growing the sport.  I had the opportunity to talk about this with Canadian born Team Japan coach JD Lind:

TT:  With coaching in Asia for the past couple of years, have you seen a strong growth in the sport, specifically with women's curling?

JD Lind (JD):  I can't speak for all of Asia but definitely for Japan it has been growing.  I know that since I have been there the past three years they have opened three brand new curling rinks, up to 11 or 12 now.  They have really committed to growing the grass roots in Japan.  I know in China they have put a lot of money into the elite.  I am not sure they have the same amount of rinks and depth as Japan.  But I know Japan has put a lot of focus on it, which is great to see.  I know the Pacific-Asia Championship is very difficult now.  You have China, Korea, Japan.  Three teams that could be in the top half of the field at a world's and only two get to go each year.  It is really tough in Asia and that competition is only going to make those teams better.

TT:  Right.  And with this year's competition seeing teams from Kazakhstan compete and other nations growing, is that a trend continuing?  Are you seeing more nations jump into the sport of curling?

JD:  Yeah.  Now Hong Kong is talking about teams.  Chinese Taipai has been talking.  I even heard Qatar is looking at a team for next year.  There is a lot of developing nations trying to get involved.  Obviously it is tough against the more established countries but the more growth in that area, the better.  I know a lot of European countries are trying to play in European B and European C.  In Asia we don't have that kind of system yet but it might be nice to have that kind of tiered system eventually.  There is definitely interest for sure.

TT:  That is awesome.  How do you think we can grow the sport in Asia?  Are Olympic results helping?  World Championship results helping?  Are teams able to give back to junior curlers?  What will help make it happen?

JD:  Definitely in Japan, NHK (similar to TSN) is broadcasting all the games either delayed or live.  In Japan the TV coverage is huge to help grow.  The problem with Japan is a lot of the country doesn't know what curling is.  The way they learn is to watch it first.  If they build the clubs, now with 12, if their interest is peaked from watching hopefully they try it.  Build a grassroots base that knows the game and it can grow organically from there, kind of how it does in Canada.  In a place like China, and I cannot fully speak for them, but if you only have a small, elite group and nobody in the country knows anything about curling, at the end of the day it is really hard to grow any interest in the sport unless people can try it with a lot of TV coverage to grow it mainstream.

TT:  Great points and excellent to hear.  Thank you so much.  Pleasure meeting you.

JD:  Thank you.

Interesting differing perspective coming from Asia right?  The development of a strong grassroots base.  The importance of media coverage.  The strength of a core developing group of nations leading the way for the future of up and coming nations throughout the continent.  As has been the case with many sports in the past few years, the Asian countries are not only starting to catch up...they have arrived!  Perhaps they are developing a strong blueprint on #growthesport?  As Coach Lind points out, there is still lots of work to be done but it appears a solid path has been created.

The growth of a strong continental championship has seen success in Europe to help develop up and coming nations (ie: Finland, Latvia, Netherlands, Austria, Hungary).  We are seeing a similar evolution in Asia now, as Coach Lind described.  What about the America's?  Canada and the United States of America seem to be the only nations competing.  Brazil was once believed to start trying to develop a curling program but have little luck in traction over the past few years.  But the USA is not without their own struggles.  Similar to what Nielson, Feltscher and Sidorova mentioned above, curling has a lot of competition in the US and struggles with relevance and media coverage.  Erika Brown, Team USA skip, discussed the topic with #TwineTime:

TT:  Now talking about growing the sport in the US.  We recently saw Cory Christensen do quite well at the World Junior Championships (silver medal) and yourself being with the US program for a number of years, how have you seen good growth in junior curling and perhaps more specifically with women?

Erika Brown (EB):  The team that just won the silver medal is a great young team.  We have played against them multiple times this year.  I think they are great and hopefully they are encouraging other young people to get more involved in curling when they see their success.

TT:  For sure.  Do you think there is way to start growing the sport in the US so it becomes one of those top sports?

EB:  I think there is more and more young people aware of the sport and hopefully having more opportunities in more regions in the country.  More curling clubs are being built in (non-traditional) places like Arizona, North Carolina.  We just had nationals in Florida (Jacksonville), which was great exposure.  Hopefully more exposure, more interest, will help.

TT:  What was it like curling in Jacksonville?

EB:  *laughing*  It was great!  It was nice to walk outside in a T-shirt and get a bit of sunshine.  They did a great job with the ice actually too, which can always be a bit scary when it is that warm and humid outside.

TT:  Excellent.  Thank you and best of luck this week.

EB:  Thank you.

Both Brown and Coach Lind discussed similar opportunities and successes in growing the sport in both nations: curling clubs.  Brown notes the recent expansion of the sport in non-traditional parts of the US.  In speaking with curling fans from some of these US states, specifically Arizona, the sport is growing at a rapid pace and people seem to be flocking to the rink to play and participate.  Will this result in an increase of competitive, elite curling teams in the US?  Time will tell I suppose but, as Sigfridsson also noted, you need to start somewhere and access is a big step forward.

Perhaps another step towards growth is what we are seeing in Finland, where curling has become a family affair.  Here in Canada the major curling family right now would be Koe with Kevin recently winning the Tim Hortons Brier and brother Jamie and sister Kerry (Galusha) participating at numerous Brier and Scotties over the years.  Finland has seen almost a resurrection of the sport through a family bond.  The Kauste family is dominating the curling landscape right now.  I spoke with Oona Kauste, Team Finland skip, about the growth of the sport through the family connection:

TT:  You have curled with your brother (Aku), who has also represented Finland at the World Championships.  What is it like having both you and your brother be professional curlers, representing Finland and having played together at a World Mixed Championship?

Oona Kauste (OK):  Hard question.  I have been watching Aku when he has been playing so many years.  When I have seen him playing really good, it gives me some motivation to do it also.  Now it is pretty fun that we are both skipping the Finnish national teams.

TT:  Outstanding results at European Championships (Oona finished 3rd, Aku finished 4th) as well this year.  Have you been able to carry that into these World Championships?

OK:  Yeah, yeah.  Euro's was an amazing week, for both of us.  Absolutely.

Family support, family motivation and family success can certainly help #growthesport.  We even see this with the Koe family in Canada.  In the #TwineTime interview with Kerry, she mentioned at first how she was not a big fan of the sport but, because of family influence, she grew to love the sport and look where she is now.  Strong word of mouth and motivation from those around you can also be a stepping stone to success for the sport moving forward in many countries around the world.

Now don't get me wrong here.  I am not saying curling is perfect in Canada or trying to downplay the growth issues the sport is going through on our home soil.  These are also relevant and important area's of concern and growth.  However, I am saying the sport is not as doom and gloom as some people may want us to think or believe.  The interest in the sport is high.  Fans still fill arena's and cheer on great teams and great shots.  Praise for the fans in Swift Current was also a common topic of conversation with some of the athletes I spoke with:

Daniela Driendl (DD) (Team Germany, Skip)

TT:  How's the crowd been treating you?  They seem to be very supportive to all the teams competing.

DD:  Oh for sure.  They understand the game, you can tell.  They cheer if you make good shots.  It's a lot of fun out there.

TT:  Excellent.

Binia Feltscher (Team Switzerland, Skip)

TT:  Welcome back to Swift Current and Canada.  There is a great crowd out there cheering for Switzerland.  Can you hear them when you are out on the ice and does that help motivate you?

BF:  Yes.  It is really cool to hear from the crowd.  Being in Canada, we enjoy having a large crowd.  So many people outside of the rink say "Hello".  It's really cool.

Margaretha Sigfridsson (Sweden)

TT:  How do you feel about the crowd?  They are very close to the ice and close to the players here.  Does the team like that?

MS:  Yeah we do.  We like it.  The crowd is nice.  Not too big of an arena but enough to make it really good.

It is quite the interesting dynamic in comparison between talking with athletes in Canada and athletes in other countries.  Our main issues for the sport in Canada appear to be focused around topics like #BroomGate and "Elite" vs. "B-level" curlers.  The topic of professional vs. amateur sport.  Jump across the pond or head south of the border and the main issues we are faced with are minor in comparison.  We are truly fortunate to live in the country we do.  Where media and sponsors embrace the sport.  Where athletes can compete in front of dedicated fans week in and week out on tour and at large international events.  Where competition is at an all-time high and on any given day the 40th or 50th ranked team in Canada can knock off the 1st or 2nd ranked team.  Yes, we have that many ranked teams.  No other country can say that!

Are we disappointed about the now 9 year gold medal drought at women's worlds?  Sure...we are a competitive nation and we always want to strive to be the best.  That is just best for sport...all sport!  But come on here folks, since the turn of a new century Canada has never missed the playoffs.  The last time Canada did not compete on the final weekend of competition at a Women's World Championship was 1999.  17 straight years of playoffs.  I would strongly believe every other curling nation around the world would kill just to have half of that number of consecutive playoff appearances.  Let's be proud of our athletes, our governing body and the success we have year after year.  Is it perfect?  No!  Will it ever be?  No!  Are we still competing and developing teams and athletes to compete on the big stage?  Yes!  Will #TwineTime continue to comment on the pro's and con's of the sport at home?  Yes!

While I will admit there are still many issues internally we need to work through to continue to #growthesport in Canada, I discovered a new found passion and love for the sport at home after talking with many international players in Swift Current.  Before we start complaining and whining and bitching about how bad things look or are on our own ice, maybe we need to step outside our bubble for a moment and truly appreciate how lucky we have it.  Let's not become the whining, big brother/sister nation complaining about all our successes.  Let's look at what the difference really is between a #FirstWorldProblem and a true #growthesport issue shall we?

Congratulation Team Switzerland on the 4th World Championship in 5 years...a dynasty has been developed.  Congratulations Team Japan on your first podium finish and showing many around the world how much fun you can have on the ice.  Congratulations Team Russia on the back-to-back-to-back podium finish...that kind of consistency is not easy and is well deserved.  Strong competition and growth for the sport around the entire world only helps each nation become more successful.  As curling athletes, fans and media, we should embrace the successes around us (whether our rivals or our friends).  We have seen what growth has done for nations in sports like hockey and tennis, let's encourage similar strong results going forward.  On the ice, compete hard to win.  Off the ice, come together as a community for the sport to win!

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