Curling bet big on Las Vegas, but the gamble may leave the sport empty-handed

Canada Skip Brad Gushue delivers a stone against Germany during the World Men’s Curling Championships, on April 5.John Locher/The Associated Press

On the second day of the world men’s curling championships in Las Vegas, you can count the number of spectators at the morning draw. One hundred and ten. One hundred and eleven if I’m counting myself, because there’s no point sitting up on the media bench when there’s acres of empty real estate directly along the ice.

There’s the woman in the Viking helmet. There’s a quartet of women who sing “That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it” whenever Scotland does something good. Later four Canadians with glittered ball caps and an N, an A, a D and an A emblazoned on their T-shirts will show up. I guess C and the third A get the night shift.

We’re sitting in the hockey arena attached to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. In Las Vegas, there’s the Strip, there’s off-Strip and there’s wherever the Orleans can be said to be.

It rises incongruously out of what looks like the warehouse district. They call this sort of place a locals’ casino because tourists don’t often make it out this far. Hence, the curling.

Over the past decade, Vegas has become curling’s de facto home city. Six major international events – four Continental Cups and two men’s world championships – since 2014. It’s far more than any other city anywhere.

It started out a wonderful novelty. The Orleans Arena was close to its 7,000-seat capacity for that first Continental Cup. Canadians and Canadian ex-pats on tour made up the vast majority of the crowd – 95 per cent, according to organizers. They did even more business the second time around.

If that was a party, this looks like the hangover.

“I was hoping this would be the turning point, for curling and for the pandemic,” says Craig Savill, a Canadian former world champion who’s here coaching the Czech team. “It’s been sad to see no one out there.”

What happened is a warning for all destination events that had become used to a time when travel was carefree and money was flowing. In curling’s case, they killed the golden goose. Then just to make sure, the pandemic backed over it a couple of times.

If you’re worried about COVID, the Orleans Arena is a great place to hide from it. But just a few hundred feet away, the Orleans’ casino floor is humming at 10 in the morning.

For those like me who haven’t travelled much since 2020, Vegas right now is a large-scale experiment in exposure therapy. If your personal comfort bubble has expanded in the past little while from six inches to six feet, this is where it gets popped.

You may have forgotten how a few things feel. Such as getting jostled in a crowded elevator. Or having strangers grab hold of you to squeeze by. Or coughing. Now that we’re all hyper-attuned to displays of illness, the only thing you hear in any Vegas crowd is all the coughing.

The pandemic is one reason there’s no one here this time. Another is scheduling.

Those Continental Cups will held in the middle of winter. The men’s world championship happens in spring. Which leads into a discussion about farming.

Another thing organizers here tried to figure out is where exactly all those Canadian curling fans come from. The top three provinces – Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan.

When that’s your target audience, scheduling a curling extravaganza in early April is like staging a downtown music festival on May Two-Four weekend – your customers have other places to be.

“Curling is a farmers’ sport,” says Bob Larson, a long-time volunteer at curling events who’s travelled down from Alberta to help out. “Spring is when cows calf. Spring is when farmers don’t leave their farms.”

No farmers equals no crowd.

Larson is the first of about a hundred people to tell me this. One guy pantomimes the calf emerging from the mother, presumably because he worries that a city doofus like myself thinks beef grows in the ground.

Another person who tells me this is Joe Killoran.

Curling in the desert is Killoran’s baby. This started as part of an effort to lure a Winter Olympics back to the area. The 1960 Games were held at a resort not from from Lake Tahoe.

The idea was that if you show some ability to host top-tier winter sports events, the Olympics will eventually take notice.

Between Los Angeles holding the 2028 Summer Games and Salt Lake City making noises about bidding again, that effort has faded. Whether it’s inertia or unreasonable hopefulness, the curling continues.

The Continental Cups – a light-hearted Ryder Cup-type of event pitting Canada’s best teams against the rest of the world – seemed like a good fit. The attendance in 2014 proved the organizers right.

But the Continental Cup is a quickie event by curling standards – four days from start to finish.

Anybody who’s spent time in Vegas knows that a day there is like a week anywhere else. A long weekend can feel like a month, and can cost just as much.

The men’s world championship stretches over two weekends. Here’s another thing people kept saying: “A 10-day event in a 48-hour town.”

The first time the event was stretched to a lengthier, less party-oriented tournament – the 2018 men’s world championships – attendance crashed. Organizers sold 1,100 full packages.

So how’s it looking this time?

It takes a while to track down Killoran. When I ask one curling official if he has a better way of contacting him than the ones I’m using, the official says to me, “I don’t. And if you do manage to get hold of him, let me know how I can.”

That’s because Killoran – by title, CEO of Sports Nevada USA – is doing everything here. He’s putting together the merch table. He’s making sure people get into their rooms okay. With no little bit of pride, he’ll tell me that if you call the ticket hotline, he’s the one who answers.

When I finally do arrange to meet him, he comes into the room looking like he’s just hopped a few fences to get here. His hair’s all over the place. He’s bug-eyed. He’s just a bit breathless. You know that look when someone’s neck-deep in the weeds? This is that look.

Killoran, 59, is a former local sportscaster. He’s also one of those great American true believers. He doesn’t work with colleagues. He works with colleagues “who have become my close, close friends.” He name drops and name checks with such relish, it’s difficult to keep up.

He tells a long story involving his buddy Nick and the breakfast buffet. It takes me a while to figure out that he means Olympic curling gold medalist and world defending champion Niklas Edin of Sweden.

Killoran’s evident care that this tournament goes off well and safely – he gets teary eyed when he talks about the volunteers such as Bob, “who have become like family” – makes it hard to ask the obvious question.

How many people are here?

“I can tell you that,” Killoran says, his voice jumping an octave. “I have no problem telling you that.”

He pulls out his phone and begins scrolling through email.

“I haven’t looked at a ticketing report all week. I’m not going to worry. So lemme see … full event packages? Two-hundred and thirty-eight.”

Killoran says this as though 238 is the exact right number he was expecting, even hoping, to see. But without turning toward us, the media volunteer sitting at the back of the room listening to all this mouths the word “Wow.”

The empty stands would be bad enough, but the talent is also restless.

You can roughly divide top-tier men’s curling into two groups – the happy-to-be-there guys and the must-win guys.

Here in Vegas, the happy-to-be-there guys are happy to be there.

“There’s nothing else you can ask for,” says Italian skip Joel Retornaz. “A great hotel facility. Great ice conditions. The pool. It’s nice to play curling in this way, and not always in the cold.”

Many of the other Europeans give some version of this answer.

The must-win guys have another take.

After the first of two dispiriting last-minute losses in the round robin, a clipped Edin is defender of Las Vegas, curling hot spot.

“What’s there not to like about this place?” Edin said.

The incongruity of it, maybe? A cold, parochial sport in a hot, flashy place?

“Every fall, it’s the same thing when we go to Toronto,” Edin said. “It’s 30 degrees.”

Edin has established many remarkable firsts in his career. And now he is the first man to climatologically liken Toronto to the Nevada desert.

The next day, Edin’s had a change of heart about the conditions: “Feels like playing in a curling club. Very unpredictable.”

He’s just won one, so maybe he thinks it sounds less like complaining and more like an observation.

But the real critic is Canadian skip Brad Gushue. Gushue may be the best quote in sports. Everything he says sounds as though he wrote it down first to get it just right. When he cuts you, it’s surgical.

He’s winning here, but he’s not happy with how the rocks are curling.

Right after a win, when a reporter asks him when he got comfortable on the ice, Gushue says, “When I got off it.”

A week ago, the Orleans Arena was being used as a hockey rink for a local minor-league team. To hear Gushue tell it, it’s still a hockey rink.

“I’ve played here three times and the ice is always difficult,” Gushue says. “For a Continental Cup, you can deal with it because it’s more about the show. But at a world championship, you want to see incredible shot making. You’re not going to see that on this type of ice.”

And the empty seats?

“The virus is still around. If you haven’t had it, this is a pretty scary place to be,” Gushue says. “You know you’re going to be exposed to it. I can understand people’s hesitation about coming down here.”

So is Vegas played out, curling-wise?

“Hopefully we’re back here in the future. But for more of a Continental Cup-style event.”

Ouch.

Even Killoran, a man super-charged by positivity, sounds unsure.

“Curling works here. Whether you call it odd or quirky, but curling works. How many other places in the world can you enjoy your curling and then walk out and have a nice straw beverage sitting poolside?” he says. “There’s a definite growth opportunity here. We just have to see how the dust settles.”

Killoran said there are no plans to do more curling events in Vegas.

At the Orleans, the Brier Patch – a regular social and drinking gathering at every curling championship – is at the pool. As the event MC has it “going from the hard water to the soft water.”

I head out there in the early afternoon at peak straw-beverage time. It’s just one parking lot over.

A few scattered couples face down on their chairs, gently baking. No flags. No pin exchange. No straw beverages. No woo-hoo’ing of any sort.

It raises an existential question – if the Patch is empty, can it really be said that curling happened at all?

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