Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Curl Girls: When Fringe Goes Center

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on February 23, 2006.)

So how many people love the Olympics because it’s the only time their favorite sport bobsledding gets its due? Or the biathlon? Or the skeleton? Speak up, I can’t hear you over the crickets. That’s what I thought. The Olympics are a very special time when fringe media darlings take center stage in the media of the center. My favorite example? The US Women’s Curling team.

I don’t think I’m revealing any state secrets by mentioning that the team – Cassie Johnson, Jamie Johnson, Jessica Schultz, Maureen Brunt and Courtney George – has attracted its fair share of male admirers. No doubt, some of their media attention can be attributed to that. This also makes sense since most non-Olympic curling coverage focuses on the sport as a human interest story and not as a sports story.

Take the coverage from central New York’s News 10. If you type in curling into their site’s search engine, you get two entries. One is on the National Wheelchair Curling Championships. The other is on tryouts for the US wheelchair curling team in the 2006 Paralympics. That is not to suggest that the people who curl out of a wheel chair are not athletes, nor that curling from a wheelchair is not a sport.

But the coverage doesn’t focus on sport, the coverage focuses on novelty. The article on the national championships begins with a cutesy parody of a drink recipe and ends with a variation on “we’re all winners.” The second article is somewhat better, describing the competition at the try outs, but it still comes off like the description of a church barbeque, and not a sport. Both pieces make reference to the rich history curling has as a sport in central New York, but neither respects that.

In 2004, the Boston Globe had an interesting article on the sport, that began as a human interest piece on senior citizen world championship curling and morphed into a look at the sport in the New England region. The piece acknowledges that curling has a tiny following, but insists that in the Boston media market the constituency is dedicated. What the paper fails to mention is that that constituency – like in Nashua, NH – is in the fringe of the Boston media market.

And the center of curling into the United States is also a fringe – Bemidji, Minnesota. Faithful readers will recognize Bemidji as a favorite of this column, having been featured in columns about college hockey and Super Bowl coverage. But the town also includes the Bemidji Curling Club, which boasts 18 national champion and 50 Minnesota champion teams. Bemidji also is the home of both the US men’s and women’s Olympic teams, as 3 members of the women’s team and 2 members of the men’s team are from there.

Not surprisingly, the Bemidji Pioneer, the town's paper of record, takes curling fairly seriously as a sport. In 2005, for example, the paper printed 30 articles on curling and covered the World Championships last April. Even in a year that doesn’t lead to the Olympics, like 2004, curling generated 14 articles. Bemidji residents clearly understand and love their sport.

Beyond curling fringe media areas like Bemidji, the sport receives the most attention from – honestly, this is just gonna shock you – the Curling News and the United State Curling Association. I’m sneaking the Curling News into this column, as it’s a Canadian magazine and this is typically devoted to US sports media. However, given the crossover of all things Canadian to the land of the free and all things American to the land of the almost American, I think it’s inclusion is ok.

To its credit, the USCA is very organized, with links from its website to college curling, arena curling, junior curling, wheelchair curling, and its newsletter. The organization also has a strategic plan to increase curling’s popularity. I’ll be honest, though, there are government agencies that are less organized than the USCA. We need to make sure they’re using their powers for good. Maybe the Justice Department can tap their phones while everyone’s away at the Olympics.

For the Olympics, though, it’s like curling has been given a temporary pass into the mainstream media, which, I suppose, is exactly what’s happened. Ladies of the US team – welcome to the center… for the time being.

Oh sure, there are still human interest stories. There’s no point in having the Olympics if there isn’t an opportunity to find out the benign and bizarre about all the competitors. The Washington Post had a delightful article on the tight relationship between the Johnson sisters on and off the ice. The New York Times published an article on the British team that won gold in 2004 (don’t bother clicking on that link unless you have an account with the Times).

NBCOlympics.com featured a virtual tour of “the unofficial US curling capital” Bemidji. The site also features a profile of the team that links to much more specific profiles of each member, so if you need to know what Jamie Johnson’s fiancé looks like or that Maureen Brunt’s favorite book is The Da Vinci Code, you know where to turn.

But the competition and the sport receive a lot of attention as well. The Boston Globe had a full listing of all the results between women’s teams in the Olympics. The Post wrote extensively on the actual matches. NBC’s television coverage detailed all the US women’s results as did NBCOlympics.com, which means that espn.com also covered the games since they were just linking to NBC.

And in a true display of resisting the urge to cover the NFL draft, major media sources - NBC, CNNSI, the Post, the Times – covered the finals of women’s curling even though the Americans were out of it. NBC even had a box score. Strangely, while NBC, the Times and CNNSI all used the Associated Press, but NBC’s was different.

The problem with all of this detailed coverage is that few people (myself included) understand the sport of curling. Most people watch the game or read the box scores and have no idea what it all means. Every time I watch it, I’m reminded of that penguin darts game that was popular a few years ago.

Despite lacking comprehension of the game, columnists/talking heads are discussing the game too, which makes sense since not understanding a game has never stopped them before. CNNSI’s Adam Hofstadter wrote not one but two columns on the US women’s team. Granted, he has nothing good to say about curling or its fans in the first column, calling the sport a game and not a sport. However, after an invitation to the Ardsley Curling Club, Hofstadter had changed his tune and was almost ready to subscribe to the Curling News.

Despite the USCA’s best efforts – and the truest wishes of the US Curl Girls at the Olympics – curling will almost certainly fade back into the fringes in this country after the Olympics. Support isn’t widely spread enough to inspire the Washington Post, New York Times, ESPN, et al. to devote serious main stream media resources to it.

The first step toward doing that would be to capture the attention of the centers of media markets and not just the fringes. Based on the Boston Globe article from 2004, the chance to make a beachhead into a major market may present itself this year, as Lowell, Massachusetts – an extension of the center of the Boston market – hosts the men’s curling world championship.

For now, though, curling will have to be satisfied getting saturated with center media once every four years while the fringes give it what attention they can afford during the off seasons. Really, though, that’s the best place for a sport to grow. If a sport ends up in national media before viewers and readers know or understand the sport, it would fail. All we’d get are human interest stories, and quite frankly curling’s had enough of that.


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