Thank you, NBC, for your bold programming. During the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Americans have seen more hours of curling than ever before. Yet despite increased numbers, curling remains mysterious to Americans, much as American baseball is to the British.
Even worse, curling is an easy sport for Americans to make fun of because it appears to lack the drama and danger we think should go with “real” sports.
That’s too bad because curling has plenty of excitement once you understand the game. It has passionate rivalries and intense competitions, not to mention more athleticism than most noncurlers appreciate.
Moreover, unlike most popular sports in the United States, curling is a relatively polite game. Players shout a lot, but opponents don’t try to harm each other and will go out for drinks after a “Bonspiel,” or a good play, as curling tournaments are called.
Drug scandals are unheard-of. And while most Olympic sport background coverage includes accounts of serious, often bloody, accidents, curling is virtually injury-free. Couldn’t we use a little more of that in sports?
Take the strategy of chess, the use of angles in billiards, the shotmaking of golf, and the scoring of boccie: Put them on ice, and you have curling. Stones are slid across a sheet of carefully prepared “pebbled” ice toward a target area. And getting the stones or “rocks” to the target is far from dull.
Unlike speed skating and skiing, curling is age- and gender-friendly. The two oldest members of the US men’s and women’s Olympic teams are curlers. The sport is not about strength and speed, but about skill, technique, and strategy.
In fact, curling is so American in its ideals, it would be the perfect sport for Bruce Springsteen to sing about. Today’s Olympic curlers are men and women of the people, not pampered athletes from affluent backgrounds and pushy parents like many of the most popular sports. Our curlers in Vancouver have day jobs. The men’s “skip” or captain, John Shuster, is a bartender; there is also a construction worker on the team, and a substitute science teacher, a nurse, and a General Mills analyst. Salary disputes? Not with curlers.
Curling remains a pure sport, undistorted by relentless advertising. Its players don’t look like walking ads – in contrast, for example, to NASCAR events, which feature four-wheeled ads zooming around a big oval.
Each sport is an acquired taste, of course, shaped by culture and history and subject to change. Nothing about sports popularity is permanent, which thankfully leaves room for more variety. Americans would do well to take advantage of that.
At present, our sports-affections are as narrow in kind as they are vast in expenditures of time and money. Years ago we sampled many more types of sport on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” where Jim McKay brought us the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat” from around the globe. Today not much penetrates non-Olympic airwaves beyond baseball, basketball, football, and hockey.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Anything can be packaged for TV audiences. Combine dramatic camerawork, enthusiastic competitors, bottom-of-the-screen details, and the right music, and you can make anything popular.
Witness, for example, the success of competitive cooking on the Food Channel. Now look at endless hours of poker, fishing, and golf. Or consider why ESPN gives more time to the Scripps National Spelling Bee or domino competition than to the Boston and New York marathons combined. Sports Illustrated even used to have a regular column on bridge.
Millions play the expensive other Scottish-born sport, golf. And if curling’s evil twin, ice hockey, can develop a national TV audience and be played in warm regions, there is every reason curling could do the same.
In fact, curling clubs already exist in Texas and at least 20 other US states. The US Curling Association reports that there are more than 13,000 curlers and 135 curling clubs in the country. There are probably many more curler-wannabes. New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley calls curling “a favorite Olympic guilty pleasure.” We need curling not as a guilty pleasure, but as a sporting opportunity.
This year’s US men’s team won’t bring home a bronze medal like they did in 2006, but with more support, they and the women will be more successful in 2014.
Take a peek at the curling semifinals on Feb. 25 and the medal games on Feb. 26 and 27. Give curling a chance: You might just fall in love with what you see.