The games are too long, scaring away younger fans with ever-diminishing attention spans. There is too much standing around between spurts of activity.
And the unpredictable duration makes it difficult for TV networks to plan for a predictable broadcast window.
Not baseball. Not football.
A 500-year-old sport that pairs chess-like strategy with furious sweeping and shouts of “Hurry Hard,” curling is considering radical rule changes as it tries to balance centuries of tradition with the modern need to move things along. Among the proposals: putting players on a more demanding clock, or shortening games from 10 ends to eight.
“We’re not the only sport that’s going through it, for sure,” said Nolan Thiessen, a 2010 world champion who is a member of the World Curling Federation Athlete Commission.
“It’s like baseball in that it’s not the length of game, it’s the pace of play,” he said. “You want to find a happy medium where the game isn’t affected to a large extent, but it creates a little more excitement and a little more action. You want to create some more certainty that doesn’t also cheapen the outcome.”
Born on frozen Scottish lochs in the 16th Century, curling remained a niche sport sprinkled among cold climates from Scandinavia to Saskatchewan until it was officially added to the Olympic program in 1998. Since then, it has grown into one of the most viewed offerings at the Winter Games, with a quadrennial bump in popularity.
But the growth has brought with it a more serious approach: Weight room workouts have replaced the pregame beer — though not the postgame beer — and the rise of analytics has curlers spending more time on strategy than shotmaking.
“For the longest time — and there’s still remnants of it today — curling was seen as home of the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, out-of-shape athletes. This idea that anybody could pick up a broom, could pick up a piece of granite, and be good at it,” CBC curling commentator Devin Heroux said. “The face of curling has changed.”
And its caretakers are wondering if the sport should, as well.
At its annual meeting last year, the World Curling Federation discussed how to make games shorter. The international governing body has been gathering data and feedback from the athletes, and the goal is to come up with a plan that would be used after the Beijing Olympics in 2022.
“The conversation has slowly been bubbling away in the background and is now coming to a point,” WCF spokesman Cameron MacAllister said. “This is the next part of the puzzle: Is a change needed, or is what we’ve got good?”
The most noticeable reform would be shortening all competitions to eight ends.
A traditional match consists of 10 ends — like innings in baseball. Many lesser competitions already last only eight rounds, the way Grand Slam men’s tennis tournaments play five sets while others have gone to three.
In a 10-end match, there are a total of 160 stones thrown. But the early frames are often a feeling out process where the teams get used to the ice, the rocks and each other.
“For eight ends, it is ‘Go!’ from the beginning,” Heroux said. “You put it to eight ends, the pressure ramps up, and people go, ‘Whoa, this is actually the fast-paced sport that I fell in love with.’”
Another proposal is end-timing, in which teams have a set amount to strategize for each round rather than a total for the entire match. Curling Canada spokesman Al Cameron said a test of the system at one of its events last year shortened games by 5-10 minutes — even though the total time allowed was the same.
Cutting two ends from major tournaments is a more dramatic step that would have to overcome the objection of Canadian purists, who see themselves as protectors of “the great, granite game” like American baseball fans look at their sport, Heroux said.
“When you start talking about tinkering with the rules of the game, people lose their minds,” he said. “It becomes a personal thing. Traditionalists will fight from the bitter end that it always needs to be 10 ends, and that’s the way curling should be.”
The reaction from athletes has been mixed, MacAllister said.
Some welcome the break from the grind of tournaments; at the Olympics, for example, a curler can spend more time in competition than any other athlete. Those who oppose the change say 10 ends is a test that reduces the chance of a fluke outcome.
“It’s a greater test of the athletic achievement,” Thiessen said.
But 10 ends can also stretch matches beyond three hours. And that means the finish — the most exciting part — spills out of the TV window.
“The concern is in every sport that TV calls the shots. But we also know that without TV, the opportunities that exist are less,” said American John Shuster, who won a gold medal in Pyeongchang. “It’s a give and take, for sure. You want to do what’s right by your sport. And it’s not that drastic of a change.”
The problem became more pronounced with the emergence of mixed curling, a coed doubles match that has a total of 80 stones, or half as many as a the four-person, 10-end competition.
“It was that very stark contrast where you saw a very noticeable change in pace,” MacAllister said. “I think that contributed a great deal to the perception.”
Heroux said he understands why purists want to “fight the good fight for the game of curling that people laugh at.”
But that attitude will keep the sport from breaking out of its niche.
“We would love to keep it 10 ends and keep our precious sport the same. But if you want to draw in fans, you need to change,” he said. “All the finesse, strategy — all the beautiful things — will still be a part of it.
“There’s still going to be great curling, and it might even be better.”
And anyway, the game has been changing for 500 years.
The brooms are better, the ice is better, and the curlers are better than they were back on those Scottish lochs five centuries ago.
“Everybody can throw a rock that curls around a guard now,” Shuster said.
“They probably weren’t playing 12 ends then, either,” he said. “They were probably playing a number of ends based on how cold it was.”
Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press