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'There's some concern:' Attendance down at major curling events in Canada

Brad Gushue Brad Gushue - The Canadian Press

Attendance at this week's Pan Continental Curling Championships has been one of the few bright spots for a sport that is simply not packing fans into venues the way it once did.

The only problem is the world championship qualifier is being held in a curling club and not a traditional arena.

While a couple hundred fans have filled the bleachers, seats and behind-the-glass viewing area for some draws at the Kelowna Curling Club, other major competitions have fallen far short of expectations.

"There's some concern," said Brad Gushue, who's skipping the Canadian team at the weeklong event. "Is it a big concern? Not so much because we see the television numbers when it is on TV are still huge."

The 2022 edition of the Pan Continental was held last fall in a 2,500-seat arena in Calgary. However, the venue was essentially empty for most draws.

Attendance woes could be chalked up to an inaugural competition that had yet to build a following. The World Curling Federation's decision to move the event to a small venue certainly takes away the eyebrow-raising visuals of a sport's top competitors playing to a virtually empty house.

However, numbers have sagged across the board at top events over the last year.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts last February in Kamloops, B.C., averaged 2,050 fans per draw in announced — not actual — attendance. That was down 20 per cent from the 2020 average of 2,578 in Moose Jaw, Sask., the last previous national women's curling championship not impacted by COVID-19 pandemic limitations.

Numbers at the Tim Hortons Brier — now sponsored by Montana's — were also about 20 per cent lower over the same period. Last season's event in London, Ont., averaged 3,184 fans per draw, down from the 4,003 average in 2020 at Kingston, Ont.

The first showcase event this season was the PointsBet Invitational at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, Ont. Only a few dozen spectators were on hand at the 1,500-seat venue despite finals that featured big names like Kerri Einarson, Rachel Homan, Matt Dunstone and Reid Carruthers.

"When we played at the PointsBet, I was surprised at the lack of support for that event," Gushue said. "On the flip side this week, the crowds have been great. The stands have been full here when we've played.

"Inside the club, it's been full. So this has been well-supported from a fans and a volunteers standpoint. That has all been wonderful."

Unlike the Brier and the Scotties, Curling Canada did not release attendance figures for the PointsBet competition.

The Grand Slam of Curling circuit, meanwhile, kicked off last month with the HearingLife Tour Challenge at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., but it too was saddled by rows of vacant seats.

Attendance did pick up on the final weekend — the 2,170-seat venue appeared about half full for some draws — but a Sportsnet spokesperson said the network would not be sharing figures.

It's all a far cry from the sport's glory days a couple decades ago when NHL-sized hockey venues were used for some events.

The national championship attendance record of 281,985 was set at the 2005 Brier in Edmonton. That figure was nearly three times the total of 95,338 recorded last March in London.

As for ratings, it can be difficult to tell how many people are actually watching live sports and for how long. Information gathering techniques remain an inexact science in today's multiscreen universe.

Viewership details can also vary depending on which network is making them available.

TSN, which broadcasts the national and world championships, said the average audience for the 2023 Brier, Scotties, and PointsBet Invitational finals was up six per cent compared to 2022, a network spokesperson said in an email. Specifics on individual events weren't provided.

Sportsnet, which owns and operates the Grand Slam series, said the men's and women's finals at the Tour Challenge had a combined reach of 1.16 million viewers, per Numeris data.

A network spokesperson later confirmed the combined average minute audience ratings for the finals was 236,000.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.

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