The Rift Between Professionals and Amateurs
Long time listeners of Rocks Across the Pond know that one of our concerns is with the grassroots of curling. The abrupt end to the 2019 – 2020 curling season forced many curling associations to change the selection process for their national teams. Russia recently announced it was replacing its national playoff with a coach selected team. Scottish Curling’s AGM will focus on a vote to repeal its recent move to a coach selected team. Members of national curling associations are angry that curling’s traditional playdown process is under threat. However national high performance programs and national coaches worry about Olympic qualification and national funding for curling.
A rift has opened up in curling between the professionals and the amateurs. The Olympics is causing this rift. For a handful of teams at the top the Olympics brings with it large pots of money. But for competitive club curlers the Olympics runs roughshod over the grassroots and traditions of the game.
Olympic funding is highly competitive. National Olympic organizations allocate funding entirely on results. British Curling, for example, gets £1.7 million ($2.1 USD) a year to run its high performance program. But UK Sport reviews this funding every cycle. Sports that do not win medals get their funding cut. Sports that fail to qualify for the Olympics get no funding at all. For the coaches, athletes, and administrators in high performance curling missing the playoffs at next year’s world championships will cost them their jobs.
What the Professionals Want
Given that context, the decision makers in these organizations want to select teams that give them the best chance to qualify for the Olympics. National championships are entertaining to watch precisely because they provide the opportunities for Cinderella teams to pull off upsets. Two years ago the Sophie Jackson rink upset the Muirhead rink to winning the Scottish championship. The British Curling coaching staff were concerned that team Jackson was not ready to perform on the world stage. British Curling tried to to send team Muirhead instead. A big uproar ensued, but in the end team Jackson was sent to the Worlds as Team Scotland.
While for the grassroots of Scottish curling that was the end of the story — the integrity of the national championship and the playdown tradition was protected — for British Curling disaster ensued. The Jackson team finished 10th at the world championships. If that happens in 2021, team GB would have to enter the Olympic Qualification Event. A bad week there, and Britain has no women’s team at the Olympics in Beijing.
It is worth noting that the Jackson result at worlds was entirely predictable. Heading into the event they were 65th on the World Curling Tour Order of Merit. The were also the 10th highest ranked team in the 13 team field. Therefore it was not a surprise when they finished the tournament in 10th place. While order of merit standings cannot guarantee success at a single event, they do measure a team’s performance over the course of a whole season. Team Muirhead has been a fairly consistent top 10 OOM team for the last 8 years. They are normally good for a top six finish at a world championship. If my funding and job depended on results at a world championship, I know which team I would pick.
What the Amateurs Want
Of course the traditionalists make very good points too. The whole point of sports is that debates over who is the best are settled on the field of play. The whole idea of a team being selected in a boardroom by a shadowy committee smacks of unfairness. The great advantage of a national playdown process is that everyone knows beforehand what a team has to do to get to a world championship — win the national championship. When decisions are handed over to a committee the process becomes more murky and more subjective. Is it simply decided by OOM standings on a certain date? Do national high performance programs try to create a combine (like USA curling did a few years ago) and factor in things like personality and IQ tests, body fat measurements, and one rep maxes in the bench press? This may sound preposterous but many other professional sports do exactly this when making decisions to draft or sign players. So why not curling?
The other major objection to selected teams is that it takes away a clear pathway for aspiring competitive curlers. Under a playdown process it is clear what a team has to do. Go out and compete in the events that qualify you for the national championship and then win the national championship. In this new world of professional curling it isn’t always clear how an athlete can become an Olympian. In Great Britain, British Curling puts out an application process every year to select the teams and then invites some athletes to a trial. I’ve spoken to several athletes who have been through the process — both those who were selected and those who were not — and the decision making process is not clear at all. It is more like applying for a job than competing in a sport.
The Olympics: A Double Edged Sword
So what to do? I’m firmly of the view that the Olympics are a double edged sword for curling’s grassroots. They drive tremendous attention to the sport that can help grow curling club membership, but the money and the pressure to win now compels high performance directors to prioritize the interests of a handful of elite curlers without doing or giving anything in return to the grassroots. Furthermore the professionalization of the sport means that events like national championships are less and less necessary (or even desirable) for selecting Olympic and national teams. It is time to face reality: curling is splitting into a professional and an amateur tier.
How to divide the sport
Let the high performance directors select their national teams how they see fit. But grassroots curling organizations should not support the process at all. I have seen the fight play out in USA curling when I was a board member there. And we are watching it unfold in Scottish curling now. The grassroots curlers are upset because the championships they fund with their membership dues are being fundamentally altered by the high performance directors. The high performance directors are upset that grassroots curlers through their clubs and national governing bodies won’t let them take the decisions they need to win medals. Let the high performance directors select the national teams how they see fit, but let the grassroots keep ownership of national playdowns.
What does this mean in practice? In the case of Scottish Curling, give over the power to select national teams for events leading to an Olympics entirely to the high performance coaches. The national championships should be run entirely by Scottish Curling. Team GB funded athletes should be prohibited from entering the Scottish championship.
A World Championship for the Rest of Us
Why would somebody want to enter the Scottish Curling championship then? To make the championship more appealing we need it to lead to a new world amateur championship. Canada and the U.S. already have national amateur championships, called national club championships. These have strict entry requirements that ensure grassroots curlers from the same club all enter. The standard of play is fairly high and it respects the traditional curling playdown process. All we — the grassroots curlers — need to do is link these national club championships together into a world club championship. If Canada, the U.S.A., and Scotland all get behind a world club championships, I’m certain club level curlers from around the world would be eager to send teams.
One of the reasons playdown numbers are down across the world is that many competitive curlers know that they have no chance against the new emerging class of professional curlers. To be a top 20 team on the Order of Merit Rankings a team has to play at least 10 tournaments a year. Professional teams spend at least $100,000 a year on entry fees and travel expenses. Professional curlers can practice at least 6 days a week for two plus hours, and commit to five plus days a week of strength and conditioning training. Curlers who have jobs in other fields simply do not have the time or money to do all that.
By creating a specific world championship for amateurs we give back to the grassroots the traditional playdown process. A team can enter at the club level and advance all the way to a world championship to compete against other amateurs. National governing bodies should offer an all expenses paid trip to a world amateur championship to the winners of a club playdowns. Many teams would sign up for such an event if it had a clear path to victory and a meaningful prize. We are losing talented competitive curlers because they don’t have the time or money to compete against the pros. But if we created a playdown and a world championship for competitive amateur curlers they would have something to compete in, while the fully funded professionals chase Olympic glory and Grand Slams.