Sunday, January 22, 2012

Reflecting on the Slam and TV

After a few days of reflection and a few chats with people around the curling community, it’s difficult to figure out just where the whole Grand Slam of Curling-TV debate sits. There are wildly different sides to the story depending on whom you talk to.

The CBC says it hasn’t been paid and has gone as far as it can go to keep the Slam on the air. Any live TV event is no small endeavour. There is a mobile truck to drive to the site, a massive setup of cables and cameras, a crew to bring out, house and feed, satellite concerns not to mention Mike, Joan and Bruce’s expense accounts. On the cheap end, I’d say it would probably run at least a couple of hundred thousand bucks. No wonder the CBC wanted to cut its losses before Dawson Creek.

On the other side, there’s iSport, which has been the brains behind the Grand Slam for some time. Kevin Albrecht, who is really the guy who managed to organize the curlers and show them they had some power, leading them to the infamous boycott and the creation of the Slam series, heads up iSport. The elite curlers in this land have a lot to thank him for.  It was Albrecht who signed Capital One as a title sponsor and Albrecht who managed to get the series on CBC in the first place. He says this dispute is not about failure to pay but how much to pay. He believes the quality of the broadcasts slipped and so why should the bill be the same for less?

Who to believe?

In any case, CBC is done and gone. After 50 years, it won’t be back in curling any time soon, so it seems. But the future is not necessarily as bright as was first believed either. While this story was unfolding last week, it was believed that a deal with Sportsnet was just around the corner. But as the day went on, it became clear that wasn’t the case.

Originally, Sportsnet was going to start showing round-robin games of the Slam beginning with Dawson Creek. But that wasn’t happening either. I’m only guessing but without the CBC’s truck and technical crew, Sportsnet wasn’t willing to foot the entire bill itself and said, no thanks. (In most cases in deals such as this, resources are shared: it’s the same crew, same cameras, and different hosts.) Perhaps it’s been scared off by the CBC’s stories of failure to get paid. Or maybe there wasn’t a rock-solid deal in place to begin with.

The curlers themselves obviously hadn’t been brought into the loop (they may have been since) because many were either calling or e-mailing me or when I called them, had no clue as to what was happening. The only thing they are assured of, apparently, is that the event is going to be held. At this point, I doubt there will be any network TV. It’s just too short a time period to pull something such as that together, unless the Sportnet negotiations are much further along than I realize.

Not all is dark however. As Kevin Martin told me this week, there is a lot to be positive about the Grand Slam. There is a rock-solid sponsor in place in Capital One, solid ratings for its broadcasts and cities and town lining up to play host to future events.

In the end, I am left with the idea that the Grand Slam is important. That came through loud and clear in every conversation I had, no matter what side of the issue the speaker was on.

“I just hope it continues,” Glenn Howard said. “It’s just too important for us to lose it. This is like one step forward and four steps back if it dies.”

Greg Stremlaw, the CEO of the CCA, made a similar comment to me, saying that he hoped things could be worked out because the Slam is vital to curling.

How true. The Grand Slam is necessary if curling is going to progress. Television is a big part of that plan. The next week or so is going to be very interesting.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Slam's TV situation

So at the end of the day what do we know about this Grand Slam situation?

Not a lot, actually. There’s a lot still in motion in this story but here’s what I’ve been able to glean through the day:

* The CBC is out as a curling broadcaster for the first time since 1962, when it rolled its trucks down to Kitchener to cover the final game of the Brier.

* Sportsnet has no plans to be in Dawson Creek to broadcast next week’s Grand Slam.

* The CBC says its decision is based on the fact that iSport owes it money and hasn’t paid. It says the amount is not in dispute and it pulled the plug as a last resort.

* iSport says the amount is in dispute, based on the quality of the broadcasts.

* iSport believes it is close to signing a deal with Sportsnet that would be each Grand Slam 30 hours of coverage, up from the CBC’s six. It was hoping to announce that today but said the snowstorm cancelled a scheduled meeting.

* The players haven’t received much information so far.

In any case, you can read my Globe story here:

SportsNet Stepping In

Sources have told me that barring a last-minute hiccup, Sportsnet will be picking up the broadcast of the final two Grand Slam events in their entirety staring next week in Dawson Creek. Originally slated just to show the round-robin games, the broadcaster will now air the semis and final too.

And the future looks even rosier. A long-term deal will be cemented between the Grand Slam and Sportsnet for the coming years. An announcement was expected next week, but will likely come later today with all the details. It means coverage of every Grand Slam event will go from six hours on CBC to 30 hours.

This does mean that for the first time since 1962, CBC will be without curling. Quite a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary. 

Players scrambling after CBC pulls out

Big new this morning that the CBC has pulled out of the Grand Slam of Curling effective immediately.
Al Cameron broke the story that the broadcaster has told iSport Media and Management, the organization that runs the Grand Slam series, that it won’t be in Dawson Creek next week for the third leg, and won’t be travelling to PEI for the Players Championship in April.

No word was given as to the reason for the cancellation. iSport is headed by Kevin Albrecht, who, in conjunction with several top curlers, created the Grand Slam when he worked for IMG Canada. It came out of the famous player boycott of the Brier, which Albrecht helped to organize.

The news, obviously, is devastating for elite curling. Word spread like wildfire through the curling community late last night with most of the players left without many details. Several I spoke to early this morning didn’t know much more than what had been reported in Cameron’s story. At risk is everything from Canadian Team Ranking Series points to the Captial One Million Dollar Draw to the Button.

For the players, it also means potential loss of sponsorship dollars as television is a key component to a number of the corporate deals.

“This is huge for curling,” said Glenn Howard. “I would just hate to see this go down the drain. It’s like one step forward, four steps back.”

On Thursday morning, the top officials of the World Curling Tour and other stakeholders were meeting to determine the next steps for the next two events, but specifically the Pomeroy Inn & Suites National, set to start Jan. 25.

Word is the Tour was going to approach Sportsnet to determine if it would be interested in picking up the broadcast, but trying to organize something of that magnitude on such short notice would be difficult.
Stay tuned – this could be an interesting day of news. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

On the Continental Cup

Readers of this blog will know that I am no fan of the Continental Cup. I’ve criticized it almost from Day 1 and in my humble opinion, it’s not getting any better. In fact, it’s really become a joke.

I think the WCF missed the boat on what could be a tremendous event. Right now, it seems to be nothing more than a big mixed bonspiel for really good curlers. Lots of giggles and good-natured cheering, both sides paling around, ad nauseam. Is there any more chip and dip? What time does the dance start again? Karaoke anyone?

Now that type of atmosphere is in part what makes curling great. It just doesn’t make this event great. I’m all for having a fun event involving top curlers but don’t try to pass it off as a Ryder Cup, us-vs-them style event to which the Continental Cup is always compared. It’s not.

You don’t hear players talking about bragging rights, or of wanting to get back at the other side next time. You don’t hear teams getting excited about making the World team or the North American side. That's what happens in the Ryder Cup. Each side wants to win so badly, they'd sell their grandmother for a chance. There's excitement, pressure, pride and more on the line. 

The Continental Cup? The fact that the World’s captain Peja Lindholm had to invoke a no-drinking rule shows you how seriously the curlers have taken this event in the past. The fact that TSN was interviewing curlers (Niklas Edin, Glenn Howard) in the middle of the competition on Friday tells you that this is about as competitive as the Sunday morning Legion league, just without the knee sliders.

And then there’s the format: a points system that is far too complicated for the average TV viewer to follow (Team competition is worth 72 points but Skins is worth 260? Wha?), that allows one side to win before the final day’s play begins and competitions that boggle the mind. Mixed Skins? Barf. About the only enjoyable thing of yesterday’s play was watching Wayne Middaugh huff and puff up and down the ice, chasing after his rocks, looking like he was about to lose his lunch along the way.

At the risk of repeating myself as I do every year, the way you make this better is simple. Don’t hold it every year because it loses significance. Make the points system easier to understand with games worth single points. Add a double-team event and get read of some of the silly competitions such as mixed skins and even doubles.

Right now this event is fun and different. But it’s just not important to anyone. Time for a change.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Goldline

We played the opening weekend of The Goldline TCA Championship, which, for the uninitiated, is a 117-year-old bonspiel that is effectively the club curler's championship of Toronto. Something like 1,200 curlers start off on Saturday with two games. They continue through the week but starting Monday, are out as soon as they lose. Stacked teams are not allowed and strict rules are in place to prevent them.

On Saturday at Leaside, both our games were largely determined by picks. In our first contest, our opposing skip was playing a relatively easy draw against five of our counters when his rock suddenly ground to a halt.

In the second game, we had something like seven picks on our rocks (the opposition had a few too) and we lost. Not that we really deserved to win that game in any event – I forgot to mention that I hogged my last rock guard attempt in the first to give up four -- but you hate so see so many picks.

We put another in our win column on Monday night at Dixie Curling Club where the curl was, um, rather large!

So, after three games in the (gulp!) Senior division, I have the following observations:

 ** I’m amazed at how many players don’t sweep in front of the rock.

 ** Having said that, two good sweepers in this event is a huge advantage.

 ** It seems most crucial draws among us hackers come up short while the top players seem to be heavy more often than not. Agree?

 ** Wow, are there ever a lot of old guys who colour their hair these days.

 ** There are some vastly different conditions at clubs across this city.

** If you are ever want to see a history of curling equipment, come out to the Goldine. Old brooms, sweaters, shoes that are at least 20 years old are being used in every draw.

 ** Lots of guys play in the Goldline but never bonspiel at any other time of the year. Why?

 ** I’d say only about 10 per cent of the curlers I saw do any kind of warm-up or pre-game stretch. Creak, groan.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Kevin Martin, CEO

Here's my latest Globe and Mail entry. It's a feature on Kevin Martin ahead of the TSN Skins Game this weekend up at Casino Rama. It was an interesting angle pitched to me by the Globe's sports editor Tom Maloney, who suggested I look at how Martin runs his team, looking at it for comparison to a business. I found it an interesting one to write. Funny that when I tracked Kevin down, he was on a family vacation in Disneyland, which I used to start off the article:
For the four teams involved, it’s one of the most important weeks of the year, a potentially lucrative two-game set that could double their season’s earnings. The TSN Skins Game may be a made-for-TV event that uses unconventional rules in a wild setting at Casino Rama near Orillia, Ont., but it also offers the biggest payday in curling for the winner. With so much on the line, you’d think the combatants would be deep in preparation on the ice and in the gym. Not Kevin Martin. Where was he in the days leading up to the Skins? Disneyland.
You can read the full article here:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Garnet Campbell

Sad news to start 2012 with the passing of 1955 Brier winner Garnet Campbell. Campbell played in 10 Briers, the first back in 1947 when he was just 16. Despite his tender age, he skipped the family team that included his father, Sandy as well as brothers Lloyd and Sam Campbell. The second trip came in 1954 with another brother, Don, taking the place of his father -- four brothers on one team, a Brier first, for sure. That 1955 win was significant for a couple of reasons. For starters, it was the first Brier win for Saskatchewan. Second, it was played before a home-province crowd in Regina. Third, the premier of the day, the remarkable Tommy Douglas, predicted the Campbells would win before the first rock was thrown, and finally, the team did it with a perfect 10-0 record. The closest Garnet Campbell got to another title was in 1971 when, as third for Bob "Pee Wee" Pickering, he lost a playoff to Don Duguid. In 10 Brier trips, Garnet's record was a stellar 66-21. Campbell might have won more Briers but he peaked at the same time as another giant of the game, Matt Baldwin, who is, by the way, the oldest-living Brier winning skip.
The 1947 Baldwin team (from left): Lloyd, Sandy, Sam and Garnet.
I love this shot of Matt Baldwin talking to Garnet. You just know the outgoing Baldwin is trying to have a little fun with his longtime pal and adversary. And in both pictures, don't you just love the pants and hats?