Scott attendance record a lofty goal

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

If Peter Inch manages to break the attendance record for the Scott Tournament of Hearts, it will prove that Londoners will buy just about anything.

That's not to say women's curling isn't a good product. The appearance of young, athletic and talented shotmakers has attracted a new group of viewers to curling, making the sport better to watch.

But as good as it is, there is still a reticence in this part of the country to buy tickets for curling, even for a national championship.

Curling is a sport that's made for the tube. That's why getting the casual fan away from the set into an arena is going to be a test.

If Inch manages to draw more than the record 155,000 who attended the Scott in Regina in 1998, it will demonstrate several things. Inch is a super salesperson. This community is starved for national curling events. And women's curling is producing players who will inspire people to get off the couch and pay money to watch them.

"A lot of people are telling me I'm crazy -- that it will never happen," said Inch of setting the record. "I have faith that if everyone comes through, with (the Scott) being back on television and the excitement from Halifax (with the the Olympic trials,) we can break the record."

About 75,000 tickets have been sold so far for the 2006 Scott Tournament of Hearts being held at the John Labatt Centre here between Feb. 25 and March 5. There are 189,000 tickets available.

In terms of gate revenue (money) the 2006 event has already surpassed the Scott held two years ago in Kitchener.

"The championship weekend (Thursday through Sunday) will be sold out. There's no question of that," said Inch. "It's how many tickets you sell Monday through Wednesday that will decide whether you break the record."

In recent years, London's been a pretty good city for making major events successful. The city got the Scott Tournament of Hearts at a time when curling, and women's curling itself, is finding new popularity.

Curling has always been massively popular in the west. It's a tougher sell in other provinces, where some consider the sport akin to soccer on ice. But television has changed that. Rarely does a week go by when a cashspiel or made-for-television event isn't on the tube. Talented and colourful shooters such as Kevin Martin, Wayne Middaugh and Randy Ferbey make for good TV.

Women's curling has never benefited before from the multitude of talented shooters the men have had.

Sandra Schmirler, Colleen Jones, Linda Moore, Marilyn Bodogh all dominated their time. But they dominated against only a handful of other quality players.

That's no longer true.

Qualifying for the national championship out of Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta is often more difficult than winning the Scott. An air of legitimacy has surrounded the sport.

Women curlers have a lot of game. They can play aggressively or defensively. More and more of them can throw big weight. They are as quotable and colourful as their male counterparts and better than most other athletes.

Jenn Hanna, the Ottawa skip who lost in the Scott last year, talks about how successful rinks now have to really work at physical fitness.

"You can still play if you aren't in the best shape, but in the long run, you have to be in shape," said Hanna, who is in London with Quebec curler Guy Hemmings for a curling promotion tour. "When you are in week-long events with two draws a day and into playoffs with tiebreakers, if you aren't in shape, it hurts you."

It doesn't hurt the image of the sport that many curlers are now highly photogenic. Why shy away from talking about a reality?

Any sport is all about marketing and selling. Attractiveness sells. When Hemmings burst onto the curling scene, he made a big splash because he could curl, was personable and had the kind of looks that made people look twice.

London couldn't have won the Tournament of Hearts at a better time. The potential participants are talented, well-known and . . . highly marketable.


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