In this Feb. 14, 2014, file photo, John Shuster, center, skip of the United States curling team, delivers the rock while John Landsteiner, left, and Jared Zezel, right, prepare to sweep the ice during the men’s curling competition at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Curling is a 500-year-old sport that pairs chess-like strategy with furious sweeping and shouts of “Hurry Hard,” and is considering radical rule changes as it tries to balance centuries of tradition with the modern need to move things along. (Wong Maye-E, AP)

Curling considers new rules to speed up the sport

The 500-year-old sport is considering radical rule changes, such as shortening games

The games are too long, scaring away younger fans with ever-diminishing attention spans. There is too much standing around between spurts of activity.

And the unpredictable duration makes it difficult for TV networks to plan for a predictable broadcast window.

Not baseball. Not football.

Curling.

A 500-year-old sport that pairs chess-like strategy with furious sweeping and shouts of “Hurry Hard,” curling is considering radical rule changes as it tries to balance centuries of tradition with the modern need to move things along. Among the proposals: putting players on a more demanding clock, or shortening games from 10 ends to eight.

“We’re not the only sport that’s going through it, for sure,” said Nolan Thiessen, a 2010 world champion who is a member of the World Curling Federation Athlete Commission.

“It’s like baseball in that it’s not the length of game, it’s the pace of play,” he said. “You want to find a happy medium where the game isn’t affected to a large extent, but it creates a little more excitement and a little more action. You want to create some more certainty that doesn’t also cheapen the outcome.”

ALSO READ: Curling Canada athletes opt for traditional handshakes instead of suggested fist bumps

Born on frozen Scottish lochs in the 16th Century, curling remained a niche sport sprinkled among cold climates from Scandinavia to Saskatchewan until it was officially added to the Olympic program in 1998. Since then, it has grown into one of the most viewed offerings at the Winter Games, with a quadrennial bump in popularity.

But the growth has brought with it a more serious approach: Weight room workouts have replaced the pregame beer — though not the postgame beer — and the rise of analytics has curlers spending more time on strategy than shotmaking.

“For the longest time — and there’s still remnants of it today — curling was seen as home of the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, out-of-shape athletes. This idea that anybody could pick up a broom, could pick up a piece of granite, and be good at it,” CBC curling commentator Devin Heroux said. “The face of curling has changed.”

And its caretakers are wondering if the sport should, as well.

At its annual meeting last year, the World Curling Federation discussed how to make games shorter. The international governing body has been gathering data and feedback from the athletes, and the goal is to come up with a plan that would be used after the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

“The conversation has slowly been bubbling away in the background and is now coming to a point,” WCF spokesman Cameron MacAllister said. “This is the next part of the puzzle: Is a change needed, or is what we’ve got good?”

ALSO READ: We finally have a theory for why curling rocks curl, says B.C. physicist

The most noticeable reform would be shortening all competitions to eight ends.

A traditional match consists of 10 ends — like innings in baseball. Many lesser competitions already last only eight rounds, the way Grand Slam men’s tennis tournaments play five sets while others have gone to three.

In a 10-end match, there are a total of 160 stones thrown. But the early frames are often a feeling out process where the teams get used to the ice, the rocks and each other.

“For eight ends, it is ‘Go!’ from the beginning,” Heroux said. “You put it to eight ends, the pressure ramps up, and people go, ‘Whoa, this is actually the fast-paced sport that I fell in love with.’”

Another proposal is end-timing, in which teams have a set amount to strategize for each round rather than a total for the entire match. Curling Canada spokesman Al Cameron said a test of the system at one of its events last year shortened games by 5-10 minutes — even though the total time allowed was the same.

Cutting two ends from major tournaments is a more dramatic step that would have to overcome the objection of Canadian purists, who see themselves as protectors of “the great, granite game” like American baseball fans look at their sport, Heroux said.

“When you start talking about tinkering with the rules of the game, people lose their minds,” he said. “It becomes a personal thing. Traditionalists will fight from the bitter end that it always needs to be 10 ends, and that’s the way curling should be.”

The reaction from athletes has been mixed, MacAllister said.

Some welcome the break from the grind of tournaments; at the Olympics, for example, a curler can spend more time in competition than any other athlete. Those who oppose the change say 10 ends is a test that reduces the chance of a fluke outcome.

“It’s a greater test of the athletic achievement,” Thiessen said.

But 10 ends can also stretch matches beyond three hours. And that means the finish — the most exciting part — spills out of the TV window.

“The concern is in every sport that TV calls the shots. But we also know that without TV, the opportunities that exist are less,” said American John Shuster, who won a gold medal in Pyeongchang. “It’s a give and take, for sure. You want to do what’s right by your sport. And it’s not that drastic of a change.”

The problem became more pronounced with the emergence of mixed curling, a coed doubles match that has a total of 80 stones, or half as many as a the four-person, 10-end competition.

“It was that very stark contrast where you saw a very noticeable change in pace,” MacAllister said. “I think that contributed a great deal to the perception.”

ALSO READ: Canadian curling coach’s ‘shut up’ comment exposes frustration about fairness

Heroux said he understands why purists want to “fight the good fight for the game of curling that people laugh at.”

But that attitude will keep the sport from breaking out of its niche.

“We would love to keep it 10 ends and keep our precious sport the same. But if you want to draw in fans, you need to change,” he said. “All the finesse, strategy — all the beautiful things — will still be a part of it.

“There’s still going to be great curling, and it might even be better.”

And anyway, the game has been changing for 500 years.

The brooms are better, the ice is better, and the curlers are better than they were back on those Scottish lochs five centuries ago.

“Everybody can throw a rock that curls around a guard now,” Shuster said.

“They probably weren’t playing 12 ends then, either,” he said. “They were probably playing a number of ends based on how cold it was.”

Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don’t travel to vacation homes or cabins, urges Kootenay Boundary district

Regional District of Kootenay Boundary asks residents not to travel to secondary homes

Multiple items on agenda at upcoming City of Rossland council meeting

New city hall and changes to property taxes some items on April 6 agenda

Vandalism has Trail businesses seeking immediate action

Business community is asking for better security measures amid pandemic

B.C. firefighters only responding to most life-threatening calls during COVID-19 pandemic

The directive comes after province spoke with paramedics, fire services, according to top doctor

Here’s how to talk to people who aren’t taking physical distancing seriously

Approach the conversation with empathy says conflict expert

B.C. clears more acute hospital beds as COVID-19 case growth slows

Province holding about 40% of beds empty for peak still to come

As 500K+ apply for emergency benefit, Trudeau says aid coming for Canadians left behind

Canada Emergency Response Benefit provides $2,000 per month

Wearing non-medical masks can stop spread of COVID-19 before symptoms start: Tam

Health officials had previously not recommended wearing them

UPDATE: UK PM Boris Johnson moved to intensive care after COVID-19 symptoms worse

He has been quarantined in his Downing St. residence since being diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 26

Travellers, travel agents ‘in agony’ over refund policies and customer service

Many Canadian carriers are offering customers flights rebookings or travel vouchers — but not refunds

Introverted and extroverted kids likely to react differently to COVID-19 restrictions

B.C. child psychologist says your parenting approach can’t be one-size fits all in social isolation

B.C. begins taking submissions for $2M COVID-19 research fund

Rural health, impact of shifting hospital resources among priorities

Most Read