When Colleen Jones showed up for her first Canadian women's curling championship, she was hardly swept away. The attending curling officials and on-ice competitors outnumbered the spectators. CBC rolled its cameras into position not for the round-robin draws or the playoffs, but for the final only.
Thirty-three years later, with a secure sponsor, strong television ratings and athletes who can pitch a mean stone, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts has come a long way. You can see it here in Central Alberta, where the HeartStop (think Brier Patch) is rocking nightly and, heading into Sunday's final, the nine-day attendance figure should approximate the 112,886 who attended in 2004 in this same city.
Still, the Scotties can be a tough sell outside Red Deer, Brandon and Regina, and that situation speaks to the challenge of elevating the national popularity of the women's game. The 2004 mark stands as the second-highest total in the last 30-plus years under the Scott Paper banner. The most successful event held, in Regina immediately after the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, drew 150,000 people when Saskatchewan's own gold medalist Sandra Schmirler "virtually got off the airplane and walked into the building," recalls Warren Hansen, the Canadian Curling Association's operations director.
So what's next for women's curling? Is there another level in its future – more fans, more profile? Can the Scotties get bigger, as did the men's Brier in going from mid-size venues to NHL arenas, with skips and their rinks gaining marquee status (Kevin Martin, Randy Ferbey, Jeff Stoughton).
"We're in a transition right now," said Jones, a record six-time Scotties champion. "Cheryl Bernard won a silver medal [at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics]and had to put up a billboard looking for a sponsor. That tells you something."
While Jones notes three games are broadcast daily at the Scotties, getting more women's events on television is key to growing the game's popularity. The CCA has tried to do that with the Canada Cup, an event that includes the seven best men's and women's rinks in one competition. But too few of the women's Grand Slam events are broadcast, leaving periods of time when the sport disappears from sight.
"There are always things to do better and there are ways to grow the game, sure," said Jamie Korab, an Olympic gold medalist with the Brad Gushue rink and the coach of the Newfoundland/Labrador team at this Scotties. "But I think curling is in a good place right now. They don't need to reinvent the wheel."
David Beesley, director of national marketing for the Canadian Sponsorship Group, handles the CCA's sponsorships. He believes women's curling will get more air time and when it does, companies will like what they see.
"Look at Ford," Beesley said. "They were affected [by the 2009 economic downturn]and they've cut back on what they do. Yet they stuck with curling. They know curlers have a propensity to support their sponsors and they know it's a sport Canadian men and women care about."
When they are on TV, the appeal of the players also includes how they look. As the men distanced themselves from their pot-bellied peers of yesteryear, the women have become fitter and more image-conscious. Four-time Scotties winner Jennifer Jones of Manitoba is the prime example of skill meets looks makes for winning combination.
"I remember when they used to bring the curlers in for makeovers," said Robin Wilson, a two-time national women's champion who helped bring in Scott Paper Ltd. as a sponsor. "We'd get them all made up and they'd look gorgeous. For some, it just wasn't them. But it's an important aspect when it all comes together – the athleticism, the look. It's all part of it."
That women's curling plays to 65,000 to 100,000 spectators at one event speaks to potential value, at a time when the competition for the sporting dollar has never been fiercer. In many ways, women's curling has it right. It's down-home fun with upscale potential. The next step is to persuade television executives.
THE RATINGS GAME
Final – 1.12 million viewers for Amber Holland vs. Jennifer Jones
Prime time average- 564,000
Overall average – 514,000
Final – 1.3 million viewers for Jeff Stoughton vs. Glenn Howard
Prime time average – 800,000
Overall average – 685,000
Source: BBM Canada