When sports fans, athletes, and executives discuss how to grow niche sports, a lot of focus is placed on expanding the very top end of the game (greater sponsorship, salaries, and competitive opportunities) so that it is able to compete in the marketplace with major sports entities while little attention is paid to those below that level for whom growth would help create a more stable force and product. Having faced this question while running Milwaukee United Soccer Club (aiming for the large group of players below the elite sliver and building a club that could help elevate them onto the bigger stage), I now turn that type of thought process to curling, specifically how to open the door for teams not currently considered “Grand Slam” squads to build their games (and resumes) in the pursuit of getting to that level. I will take on two aspects of that question, one involving the Champions Cup and the other the Grand Slam of Curling circuit as a whole.
The Humptys Champions Cup is an end-of-the-year event that brings together the winners of that year’s Grand Slam events and national/continental/world championships along with winners from selected events on the World Curling Tour (based on strength of field). The straightforwardness of the pre-selected slots (e.g., win the Masters, get a berth; win the Scotties and you’re qualified) is something I applaud as objective and transparent. Where my underdog meter gets set off, however, is with the strength of field criteria for handing out the wild card entries. To me, it smacks of the “strength of schedule” component relative to the College Football Playoff (and its predecessors). From the outside, using this criteria seems to offer a “second bite at the apple” for the Slam teams (generally regarded as those in the top 15 of the World Curling Tour Order of Merit, as all Slam events use the OOM as its qualification method) to make it into the competition should they not pick up one of the automatic qualifier spots rather than fling the doors open for the non-Slam teams to “just win, baby” and break through the ceiling (of the 15 women’s teams that initially qualified for this year’s event, only three had not played a Slam event this season; the 15-team field also included 10 of the 12 teams from the Players’ Championship played just two weeks prior). James Runge laid out the breakdown of slots for the Champions Cup here, so read that for clarification. My suggestion is to move from “strength of field” to “strength of resume” for the wild card spots. A team that wins multiple spiels on the World Curling Tour should get in over a team that wins “the right” WCT event (another stat: four of the six initial wild card spots went to slam teams as their only WCT wins of the season and one team with multiple WCT wins would not have qualified were it not for three teams with automatic qualifier spots declining their invitations due to scheduling conflicts) and would allow those below the elite to play their way into the Champions Cup rather than cross their fingers and rely on the value of who they beat to gain them access.
Moving onto the Grand Slam circuit as a whole, it looks to me like a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Each of the four major events (Masters, National, Canadian Open, Players Championship) use some form of the WCT Order of Merit for qualification. The Order of Merit is a points system based in part on finishes at WCT events and in part on who one beats at those events. Teams that consistently play in the majors have a distinct advantage in accumulating points to keep getting into future events even if they don’t do particularly well in them and little access is granted for teams outside that top 15 to make it into those fields. The National had a more open field this past year due mainly to the slight overlap between it and the European championships (ruling out at least three teams that play the Slams on a regular basis). As the Grand Slam circuit expands after this Olympic cycle, I hope that they will consider moving away from the Order of Merit for inclusion in the newer events and instead allow teams to qualify their way into them through on-ice results from specific events (e.g., winning a WCT event in Ontario qualifies a team for the non-major Slam event held in that province). Outside of that, the best way to grow the sport for teams below that level is the creation of alternate-field events, a concept from the world of golf where tournaments were held on the same weekends as the Masters and British Open for players who didn’t qualify for them or who wished to stay stateside. A clever and ingenious entrepreneur could put together an event that either ignored the Slam teams or attempted to interest teams at the bottom end of that spectrum with opportunities for a greater pay day, access to the Champions Cup, or other carrots (I’ll get into this idea more in the future).
As a newcomer to the nuts-and-bolts of curling, my thoughts might be “out there” or I might have overlooked a few things. Point out where I’m wrong or misguided and let’s grow the sport.