GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 21 (Reuters) - They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas but when the world’s best curlers sweep into Sin City in April the sport’s officials want the world to know.
Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil and the world curling championships will all feature on the glitzy Strip marquees, the “Roaring Game” making a most curious Las Vegas headliner.
The World Curling Federation (WCF) has decided now is the time to roll the dice and double down on the spike in popularity the sport will enjoy coming out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
How to sustain that momentum is the issue facing curling officials, with interest after past Games disappearing faster than an ice cube left out in the Las Vegas noonday sun.
Seemingly at odds with the Olympic youth movement’s march towards adrenaline-fueled extreme sports, curling is suddenly cool, having long been the domain of moms and pops and Saturday beer-league bonspiels.
Mr. T, of Rocky and A-Team fame, has been tweeting throughout the Pyeongchang Olympics with the hashtag #curlingiscoolfool. Rockers Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are rumoured to have picked up a curling broom from time to time, bringing new meaning to the term rock and roll.
Over the last decade the WCF has watched television viewership trend upwards with a surge during Olympic years which has helped to pull in new sponsors, new events and new countries.
In order to be included on the full programme at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, curling needed to have 30 member nations. Twenty years on there are 60, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with more to come and a growth explosion predicted.
Where a decade ago wearing curling gear would have got you arrested by the fashion police, the Pyeongchang Olympics has made it de rigeur.
Sports e-commerce company Fanatics, which handles merchandising for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said curling reached number two in the list of best-selling Olympic sports, behind ice hockey, for a few days as shirts with the Team USA curling logo were in demand.
Some brands such as Cheetos latched on to curling ahead of the Games, running a whole campaign around “Do the Curl”.
“Instead of us having to chase after sponsors we’re finding, at long last, that sponsors are coming to us which is great,” Kate Caithness, the Scottish head of World Curling, told Reuters. “We are the fastest growing winter sport and we’re just in a great place.”
Like every other sport’s boss, from the National Basketball Association to the Premier League, Caithness has her sights set on China and 1.3 billion potential curlers.
Having already established a firm foothold in South Korea and Japan, the WCF will soon begin a major push into China in the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Part of that effort will be helped along by a $13.4 million sponsorship deal the WCF has signed with Kingdomway Sports to develop a made-for-television World Cup featuring the top men’s, women’s and mixed doubles teams that will have four major events, two in China, one in North America and one in Europe.
“We must get visibility, we’re just really pushing now,” said Caithness. “China is such a huge market for us, I’m on the coordination commission for 2022 and they are putting 300 million people into winter sport between now and 2022.
“They are building 500 ice rinks, which will be for all sports, but there is a big, big focus on curling in China because they have a realistic chance at a medal.”
The other market the WCF is keen to crack is the United States which has not embraced curling’s charms in the way their neighbours to the north have.
With more than 1 million registered curlers, Canada has more people playing the game than the rest of the world combined.
Names such as Eddie “The Wrench” Werenich and Schmirler “The Curler” are as familiar to Canadians as those of hockey players.
When Brad Gushue’s foursome took gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics the Newfoundland group returned home to a heroes’ welcome and the new Team Gushue Highway.
Balancing tradition with the new sporting reality, including the stain of a doping scandal inside Russian curling at Pyeongchang, will require the finesse of an angled double raised takeout.
The venues for this year’s world championships give a snapshot of curling’s past as well as a glimpse of its future: the women played in North Bay, a snowy hamlet in Northern Ontario, while the men are taking their act to Vegas.
Since becoming part of the Olympic programme in 1998, curling has worked hard to shed its image as a game played on weekends by unfit men and women.
Curlers going for gold in Pyeongchang are far more athletic than earlier generations. At the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, when curling was a demonstration sport, Canadian skip Werenich was told by the Canadian Curling Association to shed weight so as not to embarrass the country and the Olympics.
It is, though, exactly that everyman element that is part of curling’s allure.
Olympic medalists with a hint of middle-age spread who have day jobs as firefighters, police officers and cooks do not look so different from many viewers who can convince themselves that if they too played enough they could get that good.
“We could take anybody off the street and bring them in here and show them how to curl and very quickly they can participate,” boasted Caithness. “To get to this level of course takes a long time but it is a sport for all.
“We have juniors and a 90-plus league in Canada.” (Additional reporting Liana Baker; Editing by Clare Fallon)