PARK CITY, Utah – To many Americans, curling is just that quirky little sport that pops up every four years during the Olympic Winter Games.
While they like what they see — millions tune in to Olympic coverage, even if they don’t know a hack from a hacksaw — it hasn’t yet risen to the level of popularity the sport enjoys in Canada. There, national tournaments like the Tim Hortons Brier draw millions of viewers every year. A 2013 report from national sports network TSN estimated that almost half the country had watched curling coverage at some point during the year.
Stateside, NBC took a major step toward closing that gap by launching “Curling Night in America” in 2015. The weekly broadcast delivers its fourth season beginning Oct. 11 at 1 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
For Team USA’s curlers, it’s exactly what the sport needs to keep growing in popularity.
“That is what I love about curling in the U.S. is that it is growing and that there's so much potential,” said 2017 national champion and Olympic hopeful Jamie Sinclair. “I think the biggest thing is just to get it out there more … and I think ‘Curling Night in America’ is the perfect example for that, just getting general curling more on TV to reach a broader audience so I think that's a huge step in the right direction.”
Sinclair knows as well as anyone the state of the sport in both the U.S. and Canada, having been born in Ontario and now residing in Minnesota. Her first curling memory was attending the Brier at the age of 8 and getting hooked on the sport. That kind of exposure has to this point been a rarity for Americans.
“I think we need more of it,” Sinclair said. “Like more of our national championships, more of our world championships on TV. And then hopefully getting viewers from that to go to their local curling clubs and try it out for themselves.”
And there are signs that transition from viewer to player is happening more and more. Three-time Olympian John Shuster, who curls out of northern Minnesota’s Duluth Curling Club, said it’s actually the U.S. that is winning that battle.
“It's funny,” Shuster said. “Because curling right now in Canada, as far as membership goes, is shrinking, and curling as far as membership goes in clubs in the United States is booming.
“So it's exciting, I mean there's a club in Atlanta, there's a club in Charlotte, and these are dedicated ice, they only curl on those ice sheets. Same with San Francisco, Portland, I mean these random places that you're like, what? So, it's exciting to see that happening.”
Matt Hamilton hopes to be pulling double duty at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as a second on the Shuster rink and also as a mixed doubles player (alongside his sister Becca) in that discipline’s Olympic debut. He cited the mixed doubles format as another way to get more people interested in curling as a whole.
“I think we've got to appeal to the youth a little more,” Hamilton said. “I think this mixed doubles is really good, it's a little faster space, a little easier to focus on for a shorter period of time.”
As a part of that youth movement, Hamilton also suggested ways to appeal to the next generation of curling fans, including easing restrictions on apparel and letting the personality of players take center stage.
“There's fairly strict rules about uniforms and apparel,” Hamilton said. “Like I'm not allowed to wear my hat backwards, and I always curl with a hat and I prefer to wear it backwards.
“I still think the honor of the game should be there, but kind of like where golf's going – you see Rickie Fowler wearing all orange, and you've got these guys making a putt, turning around (and celebrating), stuff like that I think is really good for the sport and viewership and TV.”
Of course, maybe the best way of all to grab the public’s interest is winning. The U.S. only has one Olympic curling medal, a bronze earned by the Pete Fenson rink (with Shuster throwing lead) at Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006. The women’s team has never medaled, something Olympic hopeful Nina Roth wants to change.
“I think if we win a medal, win more medals at the Olympics, we're gonna just keep growing fans,” Roth, whose rink finished fifth at the 2017 women’s world championship, said. “When people really come and try the sport, they love it, and that's just going to keep growing, growing our sport and growing a fan base.”Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.