The Brier in Toronto: Bring it back home

Don Landry
The Eh Game

At first blush it seems like a natural fit. The country's biggest curling competition and the country's biggest media market. Still, The Brier hasn't been contested in Toronto in more than 7 decades. 71 years and counting, to be exact. The last time the national men's curling championship was held in Toronto was 1941. The following year, it hit the road to Quebec City and, after a hiatus caused by the country's understandable preoccupation with helping to win World War II, it has continued to barnstorm around Canada, occasionally cozying up to The Big Smoke with stops in places like Hamilton, London and even Oshawa.

That's a Hogtown violation, in my books. Bring back the Brier.

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Is it possible?

"We've looked at it a couple of times," said Warren Hansen, getting my hopes up.

The Canadian Curling Association's (CCA's) Director Of Event Operations then goes on to dash those hopes, at least for the near future.

"We've never really had a concentrated effort from anybody coming forward to say 'we'd like to hold it in Toronto.' We have, ourselves, done some investigation on it a couple of times."

Then, another ray of hope.

"Certainly I would think that, somewhere on the horizon, that Toronto is still definitely a possibility of being able to host a Brier somewhere along the way."

Seems there's at least kind of a will. Question remains: Is there a way?

That is precisely why the notion of a Toronto Brier remains an exercise in patience. The CCA, you get the feeling, would like to give it a whirl, but, like a shy teenage boy fretting over whether to ask the cutie in calculus class if she'd like to go to the dance, is afraid of rejection. On that score, there is really nothing to lose, as there is already the firm belief that Toronto, outside of a few stubborn stronghold clubs, is not a curling town. Failing to draw crowds to a Brier wouldn't lose you anything. It would merely cement the notion. However, a successful Toronto Brier would be of immense value, dispelling the mindset that it's viewed as an anachronistic bit of whimsy, in a town grown too modern to care about this particular bit of Canadiana.

There are many who'd like to see it and believe it's just a matter of time before the CCA finally takes the plunge and brings the Brier back to its hometown. Others will tell you it'll happen right around the moment they're pebbling the surface in Purgatory and Satan is trading in his pitchfork for a Balance Plus carbon fibre broom.

Dream, if you will (and I do), of a return of the vaunted and venerable curling institution to its place of birth. 14 of the first 15 Briers were held in Toronto, the first 13 in a row. Toronto's curling history is rich, indeed, if a bit dusty. A lot has changed in those 71 years since Alberta's Howard Palmer and his crew lifted the great trophy over Toronto ice. It's purely baffling why it never did come back in the decades that followed; certainly Toronto would have remained a suitable host for a number of decades before the accepted view of the city - that no one there cares about curling - set in.

I'll assume that some regional and maybe even personal bad blood and political wrangling at various board levels led to a fissure that never was remedied and by the time it was, it didn't matter who was to blame or why.

Let's leave that in the past and start to deal with the present. Could a Toronto Brier work? According to Hansen, there's no clear answer to that question right now.

"It would be a very risky venture for us, to not know what sort of response we would get from it," he began. "It would be a risk, financially. It would be a risk from that point of view. Not sure, exactly, what we could be facing has made us hesitant on stepping forward with it."

Generally speaking, Toronto has a lot to offer curlers and their fans. Facilities, amenities and plenty to do if you need a break from watching all those rocks slide up an down the ice. Nothing against any of the other cities that have hosted a Brier over the years. But, if you ask the question whether Toronto is lacking when stacked up against any of them the answer is clearly "no." Except, perhaps, in one very important regard; demonstrated curling interest from the locals. While the lure of Toronto as a tourist destination may lead to a bump in out of town ticket sales, Hansen maintains that local purchases are the driving force behind the financial success of any Brier.

"Without question. 90% of people that we're going to have at a Brier will come from within a hundred miles of the venue. We have to be pretty confident that when we go into an area, that we're going to be able to sell to enough people in the local market to make ends meet."

Holding the Brier in a more centrally located place like Hamilton, Ontario, which is well within that hundred mile radius of Toronto, did not lead to big attendance figures, in 2007.

107,199 curling fans hip-checked the turnstiles that year. But, it was by no means an embarrassment. Did many of the patrons come from the surrounding area, including Toronto? It's a fairly reasonable assumption that Toronto curling fans who made the trip to Hamilton that year, or London, Ontario, in 2011, would also make the trip to, say, Ricoh Coliseum, in their city of residence. You'd probably pick up a few more, in fact. It's also pretty reasonable to assume that curling fans in Hamilton and London wouldn't mind making the trip to Toronto for a few days and nights of Brier fun. The point is, it wouldn't be outrageous to conclude that a Toronto Brier might meet those Hamilton attendance numbers, even exceed them. Put that number of people in the seats of the right venue and things look pretty good. Not Edmonton good, or Calgary good, or Winnipeg good, but good.

As mentioned, it seems Ricoh Coliseum would be the right venue. With a capacity of 8,200, and Hamilton attendance numbers as a guide, it would work out to an average of more than 5,100 per draw (That's based on 21 draws, not the 22 that the Brier now has, with the addition of a bronze medal game that was not included in Hamilton). Ricoh Coliseum would be a perfect venue for a Brier, as it easily accessible by public transit and has a huge events centre attached to it (The Direct Energy Centre), which could possibly serve as a hub for activities including the all-important Brier Patch. Getting a liquor licence for a big room like that might take some doing, but, if they can serve booze at the "One Of A Kind Craft Show," which is held there, why not the Brier?

"We've never seriously gone down the path to figure out what it would cost us and how feasible it would be, financially," said Hansen, of the possibility of holding a Brier at Ricoh.

Toronto has just about everything the Canadian Curling Association and its Brier partners could possibly want. However, it has a few things they don't. They are not small considerations, either.

Like increased costs. Ricoh and the Direct Energy Centre would go for a pretty penny. However, there may just be some synergy at play that could help with that scenario. The arena is operated by Maple Leaf Sports And Entertainment. MLSE is about to be taken over by a Bell/Rogers consortium. Bell owns TSN. Just last week, TSN President Stewart Johnson told the Edmonton Sun's Terry Jones:

"We clearly consider hockey a pillar property. We clearly consider football to be a pillar property. And we clearly consider curling to be a pillar property. Curling is right up there with the other feature properties we carry."

All of that may mean nothing, when it comes to making Ricoh Coliseum more attractive, financially, to the CCA. But, it's an interesting relationship that might be worth investigating.

There are other increased costs that would be considerable, according to Hansen.

"We know that going into that market, it's tougher for us," explains Hansen. "We know that to go into Toronto where we'd be competing with an awful lot of things, that we have to be prepared to spend considerably more selling and promoting the event than we normally would do."

How much more?

As a comparative, Hansen uses next year's Brier, to be held in Edmonton. There, he expects ad, ticket sales and promotion costs to be in the $500,000.00 to $700,000.00 range.

"If we were to go into the Toronto market, that would have to go to 1 to 1.5 million for us to even make a scratch in the paint," he said.

So, in all likelihood, a Toronto Brier would need considerably more staging money. Would the title sponsor, Tim Hortons, step up and pay a heftier freight to hold the event in its corporate backyard?

"Would we pay more? Don't know," offered Bill Moir, Chief Brand And Marketing Officer for Tim's, whose head office is located in Oakville, Ontario, just west of Toronto.

"If there's a benefit to it from exposure, from attendance, to TV," continued Moir, "if there was clear demonstration that those numbers would somehow change, that's part of what we look at for any sponsorship package, and what would be fair price to pay."

So far, a hard and fast plan to present a Brier in Toronto has not been brought to the attention of Tim Hortons. Because of that, Moir says, it's difficult to pinpoint any benefit from the possibility.

"Nothing jumps out, to be quite honest, because we haven't done that kind of overview or that type of analysis, so I'd just be speaking hypothetically."

If there's interest at the corporate sponsorship end, it doesn't seem that it has gone beyond the odd casual conversation. Asked if it is, in fact, a non-starter, Moir replied;

"I would never put it in the camp of a non-starter. But we have not had any internal disussion about where it should or should not be."

That may be because Tim Hortons has respect for the CCA's needs and will defer to them. Or, perhaps, it's because to a sponsor, it doesn't matter where the Brier is held so long as the TV ratings continue to be so strong. This year's edition, in Saskatoon, saw average prime time audiences of over 600 thousand and more than 1.1 million people watched the Sunday night final between Ontario and Alberta.

"I think we care about both of them," said Moir, when asked whether the live event doesn't matter as much s the television product. "But I don't know that having it in Toronto, obviously, gives you a bigger attendance or gives you any more eyeballs on TV because it happens to come out of Toronto."

Ultimately, higher operation costs coupled with the uncertainty the curling community feels around the ticket-buying desire of Toronto's sports fans in an exceptionally competitive marketplace will keep the dream of a Brier homecoming on the back burner, if it's even on the stove at all.

"We've never really come to the point of being confident enough to make the step forward and say 'okay, let's try and do this," concluded Hansen. "It's not in our plans over the next 2 or 3 years."

The idea is intriguing. Seems there are open minds looking to be convinced. Perhaps it's time someone took a good, hard look at the feasibility of holding curling's crown jewel event in the place where it was born. The place it abandoned, so many years ago.

Bring the Brier back to Toronto.

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