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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The World is Flat(ened)

 I’m looking for the words to describe the victory by North America in the 2011 version of the Continental Cup.  Premature?  Anti-climax?  Dominatri…, er, I mean Dominance.
Despite the format of loading more points towards Saturday and Sunday, the outcome appeared inevitable after Friday night’s sweep by North America, heading into Saturday morning Skins with a 90 to 18 lead.  By the time John Morris dropped his draw to the button on the pin for a 9 point skin, the outcome was never in doubt.  Thankfully, the Jennifer Jones rink scored a devastating 22 point carry-over, and saved us all from potential questions such as, to NA: “how will you be able to sleep on such a large lead, won’t you be nervous”, to World: Given you are so far behind, do you see an advantage because you have nothing to lose?”.
It may take some time for all of this to sink in.  Assuming we still remember the event in 3 weeks (quick, how many points did North America score in the 2007 Continental Cup?), our memories should include:

  • The great job by the City of St. Albert (and Edmonton). The volunteers and fans who overpaid and ventured out in 10 cm of snowfall (at -34C) showed us a small arena can make an event appear important on television (even if it probably isn’t).  Take note WCT, perhaps a Grand Slam in a smaller venue with full stands would change our impressions (including sponsors).
  • Team North America were almost too impressive, reminding us all that though the game has become an Olympic sport and many governments are funding hand chosen players in an effort to usurp Canada, there is still a long way to go.  
  • The wild Olympic cheering which surprised all of us regular curling fans cannot and perhaps will not be duplicated.  Several efforts were attempted, and with some level of success, but the age and soberness of the fans limited their ability to reach Vancouver decibel levels.
  • Skills competition (Singles), though different, should not be a “regular draw”.  I sat beside a man and his grandmother.  Confused by what was happening, she kept asking him why they weren’t curling.  Unfortunate for her but Saturday afternoon was her one chance to take in the Continental Cup and for $30 she got to watch a really neat practice. One volunteer had trouble looking up from her Sudoku during this portion of the event.  The lack of excitement is evident and, even if you’re following the points, there aren’t enough at this stage of the competition to even matter.  Every time the announcer called out the results, it didn’t seem to mean anything.  “4 points for NA” lacks excitement when they already have 133. 
  • Staying with the Singles, perhaps they could move it to the beginning of the competition and make it no charge, in an effort to increase sales.  Possibly a Wednesday night event and include a private party with the teams for those who purchase special weekend packages.
  • Only two games over the first two days were close (and one was Mixed Doubles).  That’s a whopping 11% of excitement. 
  • John Morris also appeared to be confused by the format.  I won’t fault him, few fans can follow it either.  While skipping during Saturday night’s Mixed Skins, he repeatedly mentioned they were playing for a “conservative” deuce in the 7th end.  This was incorrect strategy.  If they get a deuce, NA gains 6 points.  A conservative end should reduce chance for a steal but increase the possibility of a carry-over, in which case Team World gets hammer in the final end with a possible 15 skins. If NA gives up a steal, they still have hammer and a chance at 9 points.  I’ll skip the math formulas, but given where NA was at the time, the preferred approach is to go all out for the deuce in the 7th end.  Likely John was following a reasonable logic of trying to win the game, something this format doesn’t always require.
If you were cheering for Cana…(sorry), North America, then perhaps you are left with fond memories and pleased with the outcome of the 2011 Continental Cup.  I do believe there is room on the calendar for this event and many reasons why we should all want it to succeed.  Unfortunately, the results this year won’t help that cause.  It will be interesting to see the final television numbers, although the real opportunity is for this event to reach beyond a Canadian audience and help market the game around the world.  Until they are able to host this across the pond in Europe, that may simply not be possible.

…and isn’t North America actually part of “The World”?  


Friday, January 14, 2011

Live (nearly) from the Continental Cup

Let me start with the apology, for those who actually follow my regular blog.  I have pages of notes from the first 3 major events of the year, but have yet to produce a new article.  I should have some analysis out very soon, but for this weekend I have other duties.  And my feelings are very mixed.

I live in St. Albert and can tricycle to this event.  I’ve never been a fan and don’t actually recall ever watching more than a few ends of the “Ryder Cup of Curling” in its first 6 iterations.  My parents even lived in Medicine Hat when it was the host city and I never bothered to make the trip, despite living in Calgary at the time.

But after dropping in at Performance Arena (aka Servus Place) for the evening draw opening day, I am trying to feel a little different.  I am on a quest to find the appeal of this event, despite its obvious (and not so obvious) flaws.  The Continental Cup has struggled to gain traction from fans and sponsors over the years, and oddly I’m (sort of) looking forward to this weekend.  Perhaps I can gain some insight as to why it struggles and possibly examine how it can gain the international attention that perhaps it could bring to the roaring game.  Or at the very least, I can polish off a few in the Keith’s Patch while my 7 year old plays indoor soccer in the same building this weekend.

Some impressions:

Walking in, playing in my head, or was it out loud, was the old Hockey Night in Canada Theme (apologies to CBC as I know this is no longer the official name, but I don’t know it as another).  Strange.

Fan turnout was ok, lots of chairs appeared empty but there were many people standing around the top rail.  Still, it is a small venue and would be nice to fill the stands.  Perhaps $30 a draw and $69 a day is a little steep.  Or maybe 34 below and TSN coverage is keeping some at home.

The North American ladies started a cheer during the early ends.  It brought some mild enthusiasm from the fans, though it paled to my Olympic memories.  Perhaps it was the age difference in the stands or maybe the fact the actual cheer seemed more complicated than the format for this event.

Someone please tell me why you get 6 points for win (team competition)?  What’s wrong with 1?  Oh, that’s why…. Mixed doubles is also 6, single matches are 4 and Skins are, ahem, 20, 30 or 55 points!  I’m the numbers guy on this blog but damned if I have been able to figure out how this thing works without a detailed program and a financial calculator at my disposal.  If I can’t follow easily, how can the average fan who heads home to a VCR still flashing 12:00?  I’ve mentioned before the average age of the curling fan continues to rise and every effort should be made to make the format of this event as simple as possible for the senior crowd.  It is not.

What is “simple” about the structure is the fact a losing team can make a valiant comeback on Sunday and win.  In fact, with 400 points up for grabs, a NA or World team can be shut out for the first 2 days and still have a fighting chance on the weekend to win.  I understand why the points are heavily back-ended (260 of the 400 are “Skins” points, battled for during 4 of 5 weekend draws).  When you want to attract sponsors and gain traction with a new event, it is imperative to keep the fan interested to the bitter end.  As a fair method to determine the winner, or a way of simplifying things, this approach fails miserably.  Golf’s Ryder Cup had no fan interest for nearly 60 years.  Each match was worth one point, no more or less than any other.  If a team played very badly the first day (usually Great Britain) they lost, often by a landslide.  Only once the European teams began to win did the event take off and become what it is today.  The Continental Cup does not, I suspect, have the luxury of waiting 60 years.  It has created a structure as an attempt to build drama for the final day/draws and I believe with the exception of 1 year, has succeeded.  Yet I still struggle to find its appeal.

The players appear to enjoy this event and that means something.  The cameras need to try and capture as much of this as possible.  I noticed Blake MacDonald give Kevin Martin a big high five after the gold medal squad scored a three.  Granted, Kevin looked less coordinated than Tiger after his chip-in at the 16th during the 2005 Masters, but exciting nonetheless.

There is some controversy apparently on the restriction of the famous Norway trousers.  Can anyone tell me one good reason why those flashy Olympic pants that became a hit in Vancouver would be disallowed or not embraced by all of team Europe? I will provide more details as my investigation continues, but I expect this could be responsible for 10% drop off in attendance, if not more.

I got a chance to speak with Team NA coaches Rick Lang and Neil Harrison.  Perhaps two of the nicest guys in the history of curling.  I forgot to ask them about their strategy in this type of format.  Actually, I forgot to ask them if they understand how the scoring system works.  Hope they figure it out by Sunday….

Strategy appears interesting as it relates to singles and mixed doubles.  Mixed Doubles lacks the loud screams of "hurry hard" you hear in a regular game, but does give you an opportunity to nap during the afternoon. And for the life of me, I can’t watch a player jump up from their slide and run ahead to sweep the rock without recalling my days long ago in Winnipeg, practicing against my teammates…. when I  was 13!  It looks and feels strange.  With that many players on both sides, can’t they allow one sweeper?

Some of you may have seen the TSN camera crew spot me in the crowd during the 5th end of the evening draw.  It was fortunate for Randy Ferbey to be sitting next to me and gain some additional airtime,  including a plug for his local St Albert sports bar, “The Rink”.

Oh, and current results are North America leading 42 to 12.  Does it mean anything to you either?