The Last End: The Round Robin is still on top

For many years, members of the curling community have disagreed about the best draw formats and how the game’s major events should be operated. Many believe that a draw made in heaven involves a triple knockout or, in its absence, a double knockout. If you’re organizing your club’s annual bonspiel or putting together an event aimed at providing curlers with the fairest approach, that’s certainly the direction to take. But if you’re operating a major event and trying to attract spectators, television coverage and the media, it’s the last approach to consider. Why? The cardinal rule for providing the best entertainment for both the spectators in the arena and the fans watching a sporting event on television is that it must be easy to follow. And when it comes to curling, there is no question that the easiest competition for all to follow is a round robin. It’s very easy for spectators to see who’s at the top of the heap and exactly what’s involved with each game on the ice. Triple and double knockouts are just too hard to follow and don’t make for good television. In addition, each event has its fan and media favourites — the teams for which everyone has great expectations — and if those teams that are the biggest attractions happen to make a couple of errors early, they could be eliminated from a knockout competition. A round robin, with a subsequent playoff, ensures that the competition’s top teams will be in the media limelight from start to finish. That’s why match play in golf isn’t a television favourite; the world’s best golfers can be eliminated in the first round of play and, like it or not, it’s the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons that most fans want to see. In curling, it’s the likes of Kevin Martin, Glenn Howard, Jennifer Jones and Cheryl Bernard who provide the same attraction and need to be around as long as possible. Many tournament operators also feel it’s essential to get the preliminaries of a competition out of the way as quickly as possible, so they use a triple-knockout draw, play it on as many sheets of ice as possible and run four draws a day. Again, this approach is not in the best interests of spectators, television or volunteers. It’s true that some diehard curling fans enjoy sitting in an arena to watch four games a day, but they are the exception. More often, fans pick a couple of draws to watch and skip the others. At an event with three daily draws, most spectators are prepared to attend all three. In most cases, television will air three draws. But it won’t broadcast four. It’s just too much for TV; it doesn’t allow a network to broadcast anything except curling for 12 to 14 hours. As for the volunteers, a four-draw day is just too long. It’s especially hard on the ice crew, because of the added problem that the short breaks between draws don’t allow for proper ice preparation. About 15 years ago, a number of the Canadian Curling Association’s major events — the Hearts, Brier and Canadian Curling Trials — were reduced to four sheets of ice, mainly because of concerns about television, media and spectators. Research has shown that the untrained fan can see and absorb what’s happening on four sheets much easier than five. It also makes coverage for television and media easier from many angles, not the least of which is the ability to get the necessary equipment and people in place at ice level while providing as little distraction as possible to the paying public. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about reducing the game from 10 to eight ends and about teams being permitted to conclude a game at their discretion. These kinds of adjustments may make sense in club play and club bonspiels, but they make no sense for major competitions. Curlers should no more be able to walk off the ice after six or seven ends than a football team should be allowed to head to the dressing room after the third quarter because it’s losing by 40 points. Fans in the seats have paid to watch a 10-end game. Shouldn’t they be entitled to a partial refund if the game doesn’t go 10 ends, or at least to a conclusion whereby a win is mathematically out of reach. Curling has come of age and attracts many fans who buy tickets so they can watch the stars of the game. If you go to a hockey game to watch Sidney Crosby, and his Pittsburgh Penguins are winning by six goals with five minutes left in regulation, should the opposing team be able to head for the dressing room? The answer is obvious. And why should top-level curling be any different? Everyone needs to keep in mind that curling’s major events are part of the entertainment business and the fan who pays part of the freight must be entertained!