Attendance at the Pan Continental Curling Championships this week was one of the few bright spots in a sport that simply isn’t packing fans into stadiums the way it once did.
The only problem is that the World Championship qualifiers are held at the curling club and not in a traditional arena.
While a few hundred fans filled the bleachers, seats and viewing area behind glass for some of the Kelowna Curling Club draws, other major contests fell well short of expectations.
“There’s some concern,” said Brad Gushue, who will miss the Canadian team for the week-long event. “Is that a big concern? Not that we see the TV numbers when it comes out are still huge.”
The 2022 edition of the Pan Continental was held last fall at a 2,500-seat arena in Calgary. However, the place was empty for most of the draws.
Attendance problems can be attributed to the inaugural competition, which did not yet have a following. The World Curling Federation’s decision to move the event to a smaller venue certainly takes away from the stunning images of the sport’s top competitors playing to a nearly empty house.
However, numbers have declined across the board at major events over the past year.
The Scotties Tournament of Hearts last February in Kamloops, B.C., averaged 2,050 fans per draw, with announced — not actual — attendance. This represents a 20 percent decline from the 2020 average of 2,578 in Moose Jaw, Sask., the last previous women’s curling national championship not affected by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Numbers at the Tim Hortons Brier — now sponsored by Montana — were about 20 percent lower during the same period. Last season’s event in London, Ont., averaged attendance of 3,184 fans per draw, down from an average of 4,003 fans in 2020 in Kingston, Ont.
The first showcase event of the season was the PointsBet Invitational at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, Ontario. There were only a few dozen spectators in the 1,500-seat stadium, despite the finals featuring big names like Kerry Einarson, Rachel Homan, Matt Dunston and Reid Carruthers.
“When we played at PointsBet, I was surprised by the lack of support for the event,” Gushue said. “On the other hand this week, the crowds were great. The stands were full here when we played.
“Inside the club, it was full. So it’s been really well supported by the fans and the volunteers. It’s all been great.”
Unlike the Brier and Scotties, Curling Canada has not released attendance numbers for the PointsBet competition.
Meanwhile, the Grand Slam of Curling circuit kicked off last month with the HearingLife Tour Challenge at the Gale Center in Niagara Falls, Ont., but it was also overwhelmed with rows of empty seats.
Attendance was up a recent weekend — the 2,170-seat venue looked about half full at some drawings — but a Sportsnet spokesman said the network would not share numbers.
All of this is a far cry from the sport’s glory days two decades ago when NHL-sized hockey arenas were used for some events.
The national championship attendance record of 281,985 was set at the 2005 Brier in Edmonton. This number is nearly three times the total of 95,338 recorded last March in London.
As for ratings, it can be difficult to know how many people actually watch live sports and for how long. Information gathering techniques remain an inexact science in today’s multi-screen world.
Viewing details can also vary depending on the network you provide.
TSN, which broadcasts the national and world championships, said the average audience for the 2023 Brier, Scotties and PointsBet Invitational finals was up six percent compared to 2022, a network spokesperson said in an email. No details were provided on individual events.
Sportsnet, which owns and operates the Grand Slam series, said the men’s and women’s finals on the Tour Challenge had a combined reach of 1.16 million viewers, according to Numeris data.
A network spokesperson later confirmed that the average combined audience rating per minute for the finals was 236,000.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.
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