By Jim Caple | Dec. 06, 2018, 5:41 p.m. (ET)

The U.S. men's curling team celebrates winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 24, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. 

 

There’s a solid chance curling still trails sports like basketball and football in terms of popularity in the U.S., but there’s no doubt it’s growing. Introduced to the Olympic Winter Games in 1998 as a curiosity to much of the U.S. population, curling is now bordering on mainstream. 

“Curling Night in America” brings the sport to a national audience each winter on NBCSN. There are now curling clubs in at least 45 states, including Hawaii. And now even a group of retired NFL players is attempting to take on the sport.

Former NFL stars Jared Allen and Marc Bulger joined Olympian John Benton and Hunter Clawson at a bonspiel in northern Minnesota this past weekend, and they plan to compete more with two other Nashville-based former NFL players.

“It was certainly a lot of fun talking with those guys last week and teaching them a little about the game,” Olympic gold medalist curler Joe Polo said. “Jared Allen is an ex-Minnesota Viking, and I’m a big fan of his and he throws a pretty good rock. It will take them awhile to figure out the strategy and how it travels down the ice sheet, but they’re athletes, and if you’re an athlete, you can curl at a pretty good level. We’ll see how it goes.”

Polo has seen it go superbly. He was part of the first U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal, which they did this past February in PyeongChang. The win came a dozen years after he won a bronze medal in Torino, marking the first medal for U.S. curlers.

After winning the gold medal, Polo and his teammates got enough attention that they appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” dropped a puck at a Minnesota Wild game, threw out the first pitch at a Twins game and blew the horn at a recent Vikings game against the Packers.

“It’s amazing at how many people in random cities will say, ‘Hey, you guys are the curlers!’” Polo said. “And they will recognize us and say that they watched us. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The next step in that popularity growth is going on this week in Omaha, Nebraska.

Polo is among three U.S. teams competing at the second stage of the new Curling World Cup at Ralston Arena, which is also where the sport’s Olympic trials were held last year. He is not, however, on a four-man team this tournament. Instead he is competing in mixed doubles with fellow 2018 Olympian Tabitha Peterson. 

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While the World Cup certainly trails the Olympics in terms of visibility, its introduction is the latest step in the sport’s rise.

Announced in 2017, the inaugural Curling World Cup season began in September in Suzhou, China. After this weekend in Omaha, the tour continues with a January leg in Sweden before wrapping up with the Grand Final in May in Beijing.

Curlers in the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles division accumulate points throughout the first three legs, although those points go to the country as opposed to the actual team. At the end, eight countries from each division meet in Beijing. They include the host country, the three individual stage winners, the defending world champs, a “special invite” team, and then the two highest ranked teams who have not already qualified.

Canada leads the World Cup standings in all three disciplines after sweeping the Suzhou leg, with the U.S. ranking fifth in women’s, sixth in men’s and second in mixed doubles.

Team USA has strong squads across the three divisions this week in Omaha. The men’s team consists of three of Polo’s 2018 Olympic teammates in John Shuster, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner, with 2010 Olympian Chris Plys rounding out the team.

Jamie Sinclair, Alex Carlson, Sarah Anderson, Monica Walker and Taylor Anderson make up the women’s team. The Anderson twins are 2012 Youth Olympians.

For Polo and Peterson, the goal is in mixed doubles, a two-person version of the sport that was added to the Olympic program in 2018. Doubles can be challenging because the players might have to do approximately twice as much as in the four-person team event.

“In doubles, you basically have to cover the roles of two or three different players at the same time depending on what’s going on on the ice,” Polo said. “It’s fast moving and very mentally challenging game.”

Regardless of the division, the athletes and organizers are hopeful the World Cup will help the sport’s upward trajectory.

“It’s a very fast growing sport here in the states, and I recommend anyone from all ages to give it a try,” Sarah Anderson said. “A lot of local clubs will help you learn to curl and it’s really fun. It’s a game for life. I recommend everyone to give it a try. It’s a little harder than it looks but they can get the hang of it.’

Polo turns 36 soon and says the 2022 Olympics could be his last, though with the sport’s increasing popularity, there likely will be more athletes competing to make the team, including the NFL players. And perhaps more people interested in watching.

“Events like this World Cup in Omaha, it will get TV coverage,” Polo said. “Just trying to get the sport out there and hopefully people will like it and hold more events like that and just keep growing it.”

Added Anderson: “I think it’s growing because they see it on TV in the Olympics and it’s a sport that people can do and try. And I think people find the strategy interesting. And it’s fun to go out there with your friends and try something new.”

Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.