Before the pandemic hit, the last great Canadian sporting hurrah was one of the strongest editions of the Tim Hortons Brier in recent memory.
Fans would pack Kingston’s Leon’s Centre for games and then jam “The Patch” party tent across the road afterward, often keeping the festivities going into the wee hours.
It’s one of many grand traditions of the Roaring Game that could be in for a big change when curling eventually returns.
Curlers can say goodbye to pre-game handshakes. Empty stands will be a possibility at top events. International team participation could be at a premium at Canadian tour stops.
There are no firm answers right now and it’s unknown when that will change.
Bonspiel organizer Gerry Geurts, who operates the CurlingZone website that manages world rankings and team point systems, said next season’s uncertainty poses a significant challenge.
“It’s going to be a hit for the (curling) clubs and the events,” Geurts said from London, Ont. “But the teams have to have the expectation that they’re going to take a bit of a hit at the same time too.”
The current off-season essentially kicked off in mid-March after the women’s world championship was scrubbed. Normally play would pick up again in late summer, but even an autumn start looks questionable at the moment.
COVID-19 developments are forcing the sports world to take a cautious approach to the potential return of competition.
Curling has a few notable challenges to overcome when it’s ready to come back. At the top of the list are sponsorship concerns, travel restrictions and event feasibility.
“Some of those small- and medium-sized businesses that support local teams are going to have a harder time doing it,” reigning Brier champ Brad Gushue said from St. John’s, N.L. ”Even some of the higher-profile teams that have the national sponsorships, it’s a hard market to go out and look for that to fund your season. So a whole lot of uncertainty.”
Naturally the safety of athletes, spectators, volunteers and event staff in clubs and arenas will be paramount when play resumes.
But who knows when the ice will even be ready? Many curling clubs may have to delay season openings depending on their location and situation.
Event sponsors may not be back and filling out tournament draws may be tough. Travel restrictions and quarantine guidelines could still be in place, which may limit options for international or out-of-province teams.
Several early-season events on the World Curling Tour’s 2020-21 campaign have already been cancelled and that list could grow.
“I think events that rely on TV (revenue) have the best chance of survival and then the events that just don’t have a high overhead have the best chance of success,” Geurts said. “Those are your regional tour events generally. It’s that middle tier I’m really concerned about.
“But at the same time, ideally, we’re only looking at one season. So even if some of these events just take a hiatus, we’re hoping that come a year from now, they’re back in play again.”
The first big event of the curling season is the Masters in October. A Sportsnet spokesperson said via email that there were no updates to share regarding the 2020-21 Grand Slam schedule at this time.
Meanwhile, Curling Canada’s Season of Champions schedule kicks off a month after that with the Canada Cup.
The Scotties Tournament of Hearts goes in late February and the Brier is set for early March.
“We continue to work with our stakeholders and our partners in planning those events,” Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson said from Toronto. “But we are very carefully monitoring what’s going on almost on a daily basis to make sure that we’re making decisions and choices about events going forward that’s based on the best information that we have at the time.”
One of curling’s selling points is that unlike other sports, fans get a chance to be “up close and personal” with the athletes. The slogan is promoted on everything from TV spots to autograph sessions.
Expect that tagline to be shelved for at least a season or two.
Another change will be made at the bar. Cold beer is as much a part of curling culture as a skip yelling out of the hack. Adjustments to party tents and spectator drinking areas can be expected.
“You’re just not going to be comfortable getting into a situation where you go into a room full of a thousand strangers and have a beer,” said Sportsnet curling commentator Mike Harris. “It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anymore.
“So curling for the next year, certainly this coming season, those rules have changed.”
Many WCT bonspiels are held at curling clubs that rely on bar and food sales as key revenue sources. Limited attendance and physical distancing would have a significant impact on their bottom line.
Geurts said he foresees more of a focus on regional competition next season, one of many potential adjustments that could be forthcoming.
“There may have to be a small fee that goes towards the clubs from each (team) entry fee that supports the lack of fans, the lack of crowds, the lack of other revenues,” he said.
For top-flight events, time is on the organizers’ side — for now. But decisions will have to be made over the next few months about whether competitions will be held and if fans will be allowed in.
“It’s kind of a made-for-TV property, curling is perfect for that,” Harris said from Toronto. “I think the challenge would be filling the fields. I think the first couple (Slams) might just be Canadian teams. That’s kind of what I would foresee but I think it’s really too early to tell.”
The 2020-21 curling season is a big one as teams continue efforts to lock down berths and accumulate points to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 18 months time.
But when that pursuit will resume remains unknown.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press