Olympic Gold Medal helps lift curling from cult sport

  • A curler throws the rock down the ice during the Curl Mesabi Classic on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth, Minn. (Mark Sauer/Mesabi Daily News via AP) Mark Sauer

  • Teams from across the U.S.. as well as Europe, South America and Asia, took to the ice at the Curl Mesabi Classic on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth, Minn. (Mark Sauer/Mesabi Daily News via AP) Mark Sauer

  • Fans watch the Curl Mesabi Classic on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth, Minn. (Mark Sauer/Mesabi Daily News via AP) Mark Sauer

Mesabi Daily News
Published: 12/2/2019 7:48:17 PM

EVELETH, Minn. — Tom Violette can trace his curling start to the Iron Range. It’s where he grew up, lettered in high school in the 1970s and recently sat on Thanksgiving weekend reflecting on the busiest, craziest and perhaps most important couple of years curlers have ever experienced.

As a snowstorm raged outside Curl Mesabi, inside some of the best curlers in the world had descended on Eveleth, making the city of roughly 3,500 people a hub of activity for the sport.

Downstairs the curlers stretched in the hallway and gathered around iPads strategizing. Many American curlers have stories set on the Iron Range and northeastern Minnesota that involve family, competitions and the like. They talk about the small curling communities within small towns here, where everybody knows the same people and the same places.

Upstairs the spectators filed into the club to catch a glimpse of the diverse and uber-talented group of curlers collected on the ice below, themselves an assembly of different parts of the U.S.

The biggest moment in American curling history was born during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It was then that Chisholm-native John Shuster and his team captured the country’s first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in the sport. What followed was a whirlwind 2019 that saw the team whisked away to media interviews, special appearances on talk shows and sporting events, and even a State Dinner with the presidents of the U.S. and France.

It was the perfect storm for a sport once labeled as a “cult” sport, that lost status as a sanctioned high school sport in Minnesota in the 1970s and faded deeper into obscurity for almost three decades before being recognized by the Olympics in 1998.

But last year’s Olympic Gold Medal put American curling on the map, on the biggest stage in the world. For the sport, it was more than a moment — it was the moment.

Let’s leave that to Violette, who is now an operations associate at USA Curling, to explain.

“It is beyond anything we could have imagined. It took it to a new level,” Violette told the Mesabi Daily News.

The cult goes mainstream

As Jeff Annis overlooks the sheets of ice at Curl Mesabi, he uses a number of superlatives to describe his experiences over the past two years.

“An explosion.”

“Mind boggling.”

“It’s just crazy.”

Annis is a member of the U.S. Curling Association Board. Born in Mapleton, he’s the state representative who has curled at some of the sport’s highest levels. His hometown curling club south of Minneapolis, he points out, was established two years before Minnesota even became a state.

That’s how deep the culture of curling runs here. But the sport wasn’t always this popular.

As Violette told the story, when he played for his high school team in the 1970s, every city and school on the Iron Range had a curling club and team. But when the Minnesota State High School League dropped it after the 1977 championship, it was foreshadowing some tough years ahead for the spot in America.

For Iron Range schools especially, it took an entry point into the sport away from students, one where the local curlers dominated. Between 1969-1977, the city of Hibbing won five of the nine Minnesota state curling championships. Virginia, International Falls, Mankato and Mankato East won the other four.

“We didn’t have that influx,” Violette said. “We stagnated in the 80s and 90s.”

Curling became an Olympic medal sport, as recognized by the International Olympic Committee, in 1998. And that’s when things started to turn around. By 2002, when NBC took over as the official broadcast partner, curling was starting to pop up on TV screens during the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Talk to any curler at Curl Mesabi, and they’ll refer to this as the “four-year bump” that the sport experiences after every Olympics. After seeing it on TV, curious minds become interested enough to try it out.

“That’s when we really start to see the bump,” Violette said of the national interest following the televised Winter Games. “But it always tapers off.”

At this time, a student from the University of Minnesota-Duluth was unknowingly laying the groundwork for American curling’s watershed moment to come almost two decades later.

Shuster was competing at a high level and winning. He won his first U.S. Men’s Curling Championship in 2003 as the lead on Team Fenson and finished eighth in the World Championships. After winning the 2004 USA Curling Junior Nationals, he was featured on the “Faces in the Crowd” segment of Sports Illustrated.

Team Fenson, with Shuster as the lead, would win national championships in 2005 and again in 2006, and finished sixth and fourth at the World Championships in those years. Team Shuster, with the locally grown curler as the skip, would be the top U.S. team four times in 2009, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

When the team won its Olympic Gold Medal, it happened as technology made curling more accessible during the “four-year bump” of the 2018 games.

That’s because so many more curling matches are streamed online, a trend dating back a few years, Annis explained. Last year, USA Curling held its senior national championship in Mapleton, and live-streamed the entire event.

More than 12 countries tuned in.

“It’s huge — probably bigger than what we thought would happen,” Annis said of the sport’s recent rise. Between national media coverage of former NFL star Jared Allen curling in Eveleth last year, and an agreement that broadcasted November’s Canada Cup on ESPN 3, curling is getting more attention in the mainstream media. “Now people can scratch that itch. It’s just crazy.”

Sustainable growth in America?

Taking those viewers and turning them into active participants in curling is the challenge the sport faces as it tries to grow. Unlike major sports organizations like the NFL, NBA or NHL, USA Curling doesn’t haul in billions of dollars each year on advertisement revenue and TV deals.

Most live-streamed events are free. And it’s the same with the recent Curl Mesabi Classic.

So, growth is instead measured in participation. This is where Annis thinks the organization has really succeeded in light of the Olympic wave the sport is riding. USA Curling provides an informational package that’s both easy to navigate and lays out almost the exact costs to start a curling club.

Starting a club puts curlers at what the sport calls the “Arena” level, which is a building not solely for curling, but has a flat surface. Annis is seeing more Arena clubs started in old shopping malls. They can be setup anywhere there’s a big enough space.

The so-called “Dedicated Clubs” are similar to the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth, which houses Curl Mesabi. These buildings are multi-million dollar investments in the sport.

For Violette, the build-out of clubs throughout the nation is a clear sign that curling will continue to grow in the U.S. In 2002, USA Curling only recognized seven Arena clubs. As of last count, there’s 80 nationwide, with four brand new Dedicated facilities built, and up to four more in the planning stages.

Curling, he added, is officially established in 49 states and has more than 25,700 members across the nation — a number that is exponentially rising — and clocked in at a nearly 12 percent growth rate from last year following the gold medal victory.

“It’s a movement, not just a bump,” Violette said. “That’s a sure sign of sustainable growth when you’re investing millions of dollars.”

Phill Drobnick, an Eveleth native and coach of the 2018 Olympic Gold Medal team, points to the youth program run by Curl Mesabi as a measurement of the sport’s future. They have more than 70 kids signed up this year with a waitlist to get into it.

“The participation level, getting people exposed to it, that’s a win-win,” he said.

Annis echoed the thoughts, pointing to the competitive teams on the Eveleth ice. Many of them competing for an Olympic appearance are in their 20s or 30s, and most of the causal newcomers he sees at the Arena clubs are in their 30s and 40s.

He said USA Curling’s growth has been getting noticed by their Canadian counterparts, who have one eye on the model and another watching the on-ice competition gap shrink.

Canada dominated the Olympic curling scene from its onset. The men’s team won gold in 2006, 2010 and 2014, and silver in 1998 and 2002. The women’s team won gold in 1998 and 2014, silver in 2010, and bronze in 2002 and 2006. The mixed doubles team won gold in 2018.

But the U.S. is gaining quickly.

“It will be interesting to see in five years how competitive we really are,” Annis said.

Violette hopes the sport follows the growth model of the NHL, which took hockey from an almost-exclusively Canadian sport to one that is thriving in all parts of the U.S. He sees a good start in establishing the sport in American states like Arizona and Florida as well as Southern California, where they’re planning curling’s first major championship held in the state.

“We’re going to places we’ve never gone before,” he said. “It’s definitely here to stay. They used to say curling had cult status, but now it’s really hit mainstream.”

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