Iced Out: Several teams miss out on television time at curling championships

·5 min read

With no family or friends allowed in the spectator-free arena, Northwest Territories skip Greg Skauge was hoping to get some TV time at the Canadian men's curling championship so his supporters back home could watch his team in action.

They had to settle for only occasional highlight snippets during the preliminary round of competition.

Skauge, who was skipping at a Tim Hortons Brier for the first time, was one of five teams in the 18-team event that were not given feature game TV treatment by rightsholder TSN.

"We have lots of fans and friends back home that were watching," Skauge said. "It would have been real nice if they could have seen us play a game down here. But there's only so many spots. Every draw there were multiple games where there was something on the line.

"It's one of those ones that's real tough. I don't think that you can say, 'This is the (TV) schedule for the week.' You have to follow the storyline of what's going on."

Skauge's best case for a TV game came Thursday night when he upset New Brunswick's James Grattan 10-6. Grattan needed a victory in the preliminary round finale to force a tiebreaker.

The feature game ended up going to two teams bound for the championship pool in Wild Card Three's Wayne Middaugh and Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson.

"It's always nice to have games on TV but it's also nice to be winning games when you're on TV," said N.W.T. lead Robert Borden, who made his eighth career Brier appearance. "There's a lot of great teams out here so there's always going to be a really good matchup between two big names in almost every draw.

"We were hoping to get a couple more wins as a way to put ourselves in that conversation and maybe get a game on TV, but we'll be fine."

As nice as it might be to spotlight the full field on television, there are only 18 draws in the preliminary round. High-profile teams and playoff contenders are naturally going to move the needle for a ratings-driven broadcaster.

Victories are likely the best way to force a rightsholder's hand. The five teams that didn't make the TV cut - N.W.T., Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., Yukon and Nunavut - had a combined record of 5-35.

Until the win-loss total changes, it's tough to make a case.

TSN has experimented in the past by covering two games at the same time. But it was not an option for the bubble setup at Calgary's Markin MacPhail Centre given spacing concerns.

"We did find that given the expense and the cost to do that - and you're splitting your audience - I'm not sure there's a big upside for that," TSN Curling senior producer Scott Higgins said in a recent interview.

"For the viewer at home, sure, they'd love to (have) the ability to see all four games but that's just not possible. And then there would be more people on the ice as well, which they're trying to eliminate."

Higgins added that feature game selection is quite subjective and can involve many factors. It's a similar challenge for Sportsnet's Grand Slam of Curling, which will hold two events in the bubble next month.

The single feature game model is also used on that network, but the fields and format are much different. Top international teams are in the draw and weaker domestic teams are not included.

Both Sportsnet and TSN have multiple channel options for broadcasts.

Rob Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL Productions, said the primary challenge is at the facilities level, particularly this season given spacing constraints in the bubble.

"Having people dedicated to specific sheets just ups the ante in terms of the number of people that are required and the number of facilities and resources in order to pull it off," he said in a recent interview.

"It's like putting on four soccer games on four different pitches. To cover them properly, you need essentially four different crews."

The Australian Open recently offered a tantalizing sample of what curling fans can only dream about.

Matches from the Grand Slam tennis event were shown on multiple TSN channels, allowing viewers to pick and choose. Showcase matchups had more production frills but basic feeds were still available from smaller side courts.

Sportsnet has the rights for the National Bank Open (previously known as the Rogers Cup).

"Tennis is a little more nuanced, but if you have coverage on say three or four courts there's actually individuals who are looking after each individual court, and you vary it in the levels of coverage from your centre court as you move to the periphery," Corte said.

"But that's something that we talk about (for curling) and we know that there's an interest and a desire for that. So that's something we talk about a lot but we're still trying to find the right solution to do it efficiently."

Ontario, Nova Scotia, Wild Card Three, Canada and Manitoba led the Brier with four feature games apiece. Those teams finished the preliminary round with a combined record of 32-16.

Wild Card One, Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario were next with three appearances each, followed by Wild Card Two and Alberta with two and B.C., New Brunswick and Quebec with one.

Play in the eight-team championship pool wraps up Saturday. The semifinal and final are set for Sunday.

At last month's Canadian women's curling championship, four teams - Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon and Nunavut - were shut out on the TV front. Their combined record was 5-27.

Manitoba, P.E.I., Alberta, and Wild Card Three led the way at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts with four TV games apiece.

There was one extra draw window due to a N.W.T.-Canada game that was rescheduled to a vacant morning slot. Those teams had three appearances each along with Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Wild Card One, Quebec, Wild Card Two and B.C. had two games apiece and Northern Ontario and New Brunswick were each on TV once.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press