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In The Rings: Formative steps underway for curling players' association

A new quadrennial has done little to improve the often perplexing elite curling scene. A sport that still clings to amateur roots despite a growing shift to professional status seems stunted by a lack of unity among the various power brokers.
Team Wild Card Two skip Matt Dunstone directs his teammates while playing Team Yukon at the Tim Hortons Brier in Lethbridge, Alta., Sunday, March 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A new quadrennial has done little to improve the often perplexing elite curling scene. A sport that still clings to amateur roots despite a growing shift to professional status seems stunted by a lack of unity among the various power brokers.

Many elite domestic and international curlers have had issues for years with scheduling, convoluted ranking point setups, rule changes and in many cases, a general lack of communication. 

"There's not a whole lot of working together with this," Canadian skip Matt Dunstone said in a recent interview. "It's a bunch of separate entities running their own thing."

Rylan Hartley is hoping to change that. 

A co-founder of the streaming service Curling Live, Hartley has unveiled The Players' Tour and launched a new curling players' association that has Olympic champion Niklas Edin of Sweden as its interim president. 

One of Hartley's main goals is to give athletes a stronger voice to tackle core concerns. While still in its infancy, he envisions the group working as partners with existing circuits, federations and event organizers.

"Just making sure that everybody gets together and gets on the same page is the primary focus this early on," Hartley told The Canadian Press.

"Once we can develop a better channel for communication in the sport, then I believe that we can move the needle forward on running some of our own events, and start to push forward on a broader, more commercial tour and giving the athletes a more equitable voice within the sport."

Some high-profile curlers are listed with Edin as executive group members. They include Canada's Emma Miskew, Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni and Americans Korey Dropkin and Tabitha Peterson, among others.

A number of elite players have already signed an initial letter of support. The group plans to hold seminars and canvass active competitive curlers around the world over the coming weeks. 

"I think this has been a long time coming and I'm just really thankful that it's here," Miskew said.

Other curling players' associations have been created in the past but those groups did not last on a long-term basis. 

"I think what makes this a little bit different is we're starting with a professional system, we're including (domestic and international curlers) and I think that we're trying to do it in a very balanced and fair way," Hartley said. 

"I think by doing that, people are feeling like for the first time they're really being heard on different issues."

Curlers often have to deal with different formats and regulations depending on the event. Bonspiels and games can be packed tightly on the schedule, creating travel challenges and leaving little time for rest and recovery.

Ranking point systems are quite intricate and many events have seen limited growth in prize purses. Team sponsor cresting has also been a long-standing issue.

Canada's Brad Gushue, who won Olympic bronze last year in Beijing, said it's time to "take the shackles off us."

"Going to the Brier and not wearing a logo. Going to the (Olympic) Trials and having different colours on," Gushue said. "We had four different uniforms on last year. 

"It's really hard to brand yourselves and sell yourselves when that's happening."

Miskew, a member of Team Rachel Homan, said a PA could serve as a conduit between organizers and teams and help players have a say in the decision-making process so they aren't caught by surprise.

She said there was no discussion with her rink about the recent removal of a high-performance event like the Canada Cup. Miskew also learned the national championship would continue with its 18-team (three wild-card) format via Twitter.

"This (PA) should be a good way to increase the communication, knowing there's a small group of people that can be contacted when this sort of stuff comes up," she said.

Unlike many other sports that have one main tour, several hands pull the strings on the curling scene. 

The Sportsnet-owned Grand Slam series runs its six events each season. Curling Canada, the domestic federation, has its Season of Champions calendar on TSN, anchored by the national championships. 

The World Curling Federation runs the world championships and the World Curling Tour primarily focuses on European events. There are several lower-level competitions in North America run by a variety of organizers.

Some recent domestic bonspiels, including the Penticton Classic, the Autumn Gold Curling Classic and Stu Sells Series, have already started to feature The Players' Tour branding.

"We want to see more of a structure for things like how events get created and added to the schedule on a calendar," Hartley said.

Many top Canadian curlers balance full-time jobs or side gigs with their athletic pursuits. Top events have six-figure purses but team payouts remain modest.

The new PA, meanwhile, said it plans to work with the WCF and existing athletes' commissions. It also hopes to have positive relationships with Curling Canada and other national sport organizations.

"The goal is to work with these governing bodies and really enhance the sport," said Hartley, who also runs a marketing agency. 

There was no immediate word on a date for a formal vote by the players on the association.

"We kind of follow the amateur athlete model in Canada," Curling Canada CEO Kathy Henderson said in a recent interview. "But that doesn't mean to say that we'd ever be unco-operative or we wouldn't listen or we wouldn't try to take absolute consideration into what a players' association needs and wants. 

"I'm positive there's always ways of doing that. But we're a little bit different."

This season may be the ideal time for change throughout the sport with the Milan Olympics still over three years away. 

"We're better when we work together than people going and trying to all go do different things and not get aligned," said WCF president Beau Welling. "We're not a huge sport in the grand scheme of things. 

"So we need to be smart, we need to be efficient and we need to leverage resources that exist throughout the ecosystem."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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