Might not be obvious but curling definitely growing in U.S.

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BY , CALGARY SUN

Erika Brown

United States skip Erika Brown calls a shot during a game against South Korea at the Women’s World Curling Championship in Swift Current, Sask., on March 22, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

 

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — Playing with the American flag on your jacket at an international curling event doesn’t get you on ESPN’s Sportscenter or the cover of Sports Illustrated.

It probably never will.

Just don’t assume that a lack of media attention means the sport’s not growing in the U.S.

“I think (growth) is happening, but it’s just a long process,” U.S. skip Erika Brown said Tuesday morning after her team beat South Korea 10-3 at the world women’s curling championship.

“I’ve been saying this ever since the sport got into the Olympics, but it’s starting to snowball.”

The Olympics have been central to the sport’s growth in the U.S. ever since curling made its return to the official schedule in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Every four years, the sport is broadcast onto the televisions of tens of millions of Americans, and it has paid dividends for local clubs.

During the 2014 Olympics, for instance, everyone from Steve Harvey to Arsenio Hall gave the sport a try on their TV shows, while a press release from USA Curling claimed curling was the most-watched Olympic sport on American cable networks during the Games.

Since, clubs have begun popping up across the country and events like the Continental Cup have attracted crowds in non-traditional markets like Las Vegas. USA Curling also has helped ease the financial burden of opening a new club with programs that loan out stones.

While it’s hard to get exact numbers — and no one is expecting curling to one day compete with the likes of the NFL and NBA — the American team at this week’s worlds say there’s no question the sport’s reach is expanding at the grassroots level.

“We know it’s growing, we’re building clubs at a rate that no one else in the world is building clubs,” said national team coach Ann Swisshelm. “There are clubs now in places like Charlotte and Phoenix and they’re looking at building a club in Southern California and Texas. We just had our national championships in Jacksonville, Florida.

“We have a really healthy curling population and at some point that will translate into more and more competitive play.”

Producing a team that can regularly compete with the best rinks on the international stage remains an elusive target, but it might be the key to sustaining growth. And it wasn’t all that long ago that the U.S. was regularly competing for medals at the worlds.

Debbie McCormick skipped her U.S. team to gold in 2003 in Winnipeg, while Cassandra Johnson led the Americans to silver in 2005 before McCormick repeated the feat a year later.

After a slow start this week in Swift Current, the U.S. team started picking up steam on Tuesday. First, they beat South Korea handily in the morning draw. A couple hours later, they produced a shocker, defeating heavily favoured Russia, 6-5.

“Everyone’s playing pretty darn good,” Brown said. “Our first couple of games I actually thought we played really well, we just didn’t end up on top of the scoreboard.”

Time will tell whether there’s a new generation of young curlers set to take over for the likes of Brown and John Shuster, but there’s reason for optimism at the junior level.

Earlier this month, Korey Dropkin led the U.S. to silver in the men’s event at the 2016 world junior curling championships, while Cory Christensen finished second in the women’s event.

“There’s some good young players who are working hard right now,” Brown said. “There’s reason for optimism.”

LACKING CONSISTENCY

The rapidly changing ice conditions at the Credit Union iPlex may become more and more of a talking point as the week progresses.

Even as they picked up two wins on Tuesday, Team Canada admitted to struggling to adjust to changes in the ice between morning and afternoon draws.

“This morning we came up against a team that played really well and we had to be patient and wait it out,” skip Chelsea Carey said. “(This afternoon) it was like being in a different club. We were just really fooled by how hard we had to throw ends.”

Canada beat Germany 7-5 in the morning draw and followed that up with a 5-4 victory over lowly Italy in the afternoon. Wins are wins, but it was striking to see Carey needing a point in the 10th and final end to dispatch the winless Italians.

With a packed house for every draw, and temperatures that have generally been unseasonably warm, Carey wasn’t blaming the crew in Swift Current for the conditions. However, she said it was unlikely things were going to improve as the week wears on.

“I can’t imagine it’s going to be any better in the playoffs,” Carey said. “We’ve gotta prepare for it to be like this. If it’s better, that’s great, but this is how it’s been the last couple days and it’s just getting used to it.”

Canada sits tied atop the standings with Switzerland with a 6-1 record.

GETTING BETTER

Every team talks about taking things game by game and improving as the week goes on.

But nobody’s putting their words into action quite like Eve Muirhead and her Scottish teammates.

After opening the event with a 5-3 loss to Sweden, Scotland has gone on a tear and was near-perfect while beating Denmark 9-3 on Tuesday morning and followed up with a 6-5 victory over Finland in the evening draw.

“We came out strong and played the scoreboard really, really well,” Muirhead said. “There’s still a long way to go, you’ve got to look at the big picture and we’re only half way through.

“It’s a long, long week.”

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