I spent the better part of last week watching Sportsnet’s excellent coverage of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling as the top teams in the world were in Pictou County, Nova Scotia for the Tour Challenge.
The Tour Challenge is unique in that it includes a Tier 2 event where teams that fell just short of qualifying for the Tier 1 draw join a group of regional teams with the winner earning a spot in one of the season’s other Slams. However, coverage of the Tier 2 event has traditionally been limited which is unfortunate considering the teams competing in Tier 2 would benefit greatly from any additional coverage they receive, be it online or on broadcast television.
The Tier 2 event could serve as an excellent platform to expose a whole other group of teams to the larger curling community, an opportunity for us to be introduced to some of the teams that we might see in future Slam events or at the Scotties, Brier and Worlds. However, having watched coverage of the Tour Challenge since 2015, I don’t get the sense that organizers have wrapped their heads around how to provide coverage of the Tier 2 event within its existing infrastructure. The operational and broadcast teams behind the Grand Slams excel at what they do, they are very organized and have their regular events down to a science, but the Tier 2 event is a bit of an outlier and, since it happens only once a year, it does not get the love that it deserves.
I can appreciate that Kerri Einarson vs Anna Hasselborg in the Tier 1 final will attract more television viewers than a battle between Min-Ji Kim and Jestyn Murphy in the Tier 2 final. That said, a live stream of Kim vs Murphy might have drawn a larger than expected audience and would have allowed two relatively large curling markets, Korea and Southern Ontario, to watch teams from their regions play for a spot in the Canadian Open.
It seems like a lost opportunity to host another event as part of the Tour Challenge and then spend the better part of the week providing only very limited coverage of that event. There are certainly local reporters/videographers or students from a broadcast journalism program that could handle providing highlights and reports from the Tier 2 venue throughout the week. There are so many good stories to be told among those Tier 2 teams, stories that have yet to be told at the national level.
Among the teams in Pictou County were some of the best young teams in the world, including the two men’s finalists, Team Dropkin and Team Horgan along with Team Brown and Team St. Georges in the women’s event, among others. These young teams are different from young teams of past generations that would have been focused on gaining experience at an event like the Tier 2. This generation, they’re in it to win it. As Corryn Brown of BC told From the Hack.
“We looked at the field before leaving and we knew we would have a really good shot of being competitive,” Brown said, “…we went into Pictou County with the mindset that we were capable of winning if everything went well”.
Team Dropkin, who won the men’s Tier 2 event, were equally confident when they arrived in Pictou County. The “Young Bucks” as they are known, have played in six World Curling Tour finals since joining the tour last season, reaching the semifinals at last year’s Tier 2.
“Our goal was to find our groove early in the week,” Dropkin told From the Hack, “and if we did that, we knew we had a chance.”
Even the young teams that have yet to taste much success on the World Curling Tour were confident heading into the Tier 2.
“We’ve played many teams this season that have much more experience than we do,” two-time Quebec junior champion Laurie St. Georges told From the Hack, “so our main goal in Pictou County was to measure ourselves against teams of a similar ranking while striving to go as deep as we could in the competition.”
These young teams would have benefitted from more media exposure at the Tour Challenge. All of them are well-spoken and they all have interesting stories to tell despite their relative youth.
Despite the lack of coverage, the participating teams did feel like they were part of the “Slam experience”.
“We definitely felt like we were playing in a Slam event even though we were playing in another building,” Corryn Brown said, “we were well treated by everyone throughout the week”.
For teams/players that have previous Slam experience, the Tier 2 is an opportunity to speed up a return to the Slams. These more experienced teams understand just how difficult it is to qualify for the Slams and with that knowledge comes more pressure.
“I do think there’s some degree of younger/newer teams playing looser,” Laura Walker told From the Hack. “Knowing what was at stake, we weren’t going to be satisfied with anything short of winning the whole thing and I’m not sure every team there felt the same way.”
Kerri Einarson is the only skip to have ever won the Tier 2 event twice and the importance of the event was not lost on her.
“I felt some pressure playing in both Tier 2 events, especially in the final,” Einarson said, “it is a big event to win because it could be your only chance to get into another Slam and that’s where you get a chance to play against all those top 15 teams in the world and really test yourself at that level of curling.”
For some teams, winning the Tier 2 is but a stepping stone as was the case for Jim Cotter in 2015 when he skipped his team to victory in the inaugural Tier 2 men’s event.
“We were pretty happy to play in the Tier 2 event 2015, we did not play much the year before so we lost ground in the points race,” Cotter said, “we won the Tier 2, earned a spot in the Masters and made the final so the Tier 2 worked well for us.”
Ultimately, the Tour Challenge Tier 2 event is an important one for both young and experienced teams striving to reach the next level. It could be argued that the Tier 2 event is even more important to the participating teams than any other Slam is to Tier 1 teams.
The Tier 2 could also serve as an opportunity for these teams to introduce themselves to the world curling community, enhance their visibility and potentially attract new sponsors. However, in order for the teams to reap such benefits, the event needs more exposure.
As I wrote above, the team behind the scenes at the Grand Slam of Curling and the folks involved with Sportsnet’s curling coverage excel at what they do and hopefully they can identify ways to shine a brighter light on the teams they bring together yearly for the Tour Challenge Tier 2 event.