Sportsnet takes Grand Slam of Curling to the next level

Olympic gold-medalist curler Kevin Martin. (JAY LOPINSKI/QMI Agency file photo)

Olympic gold-medalist curler Kevin Martin. (JAY LOPINSKI/QMI Agency file photo)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:10 AM ET

BRANTFORD, ONT. - Who could have imagined this in 1973, when they held the Brier in the old Edmonton Gardens, turned on the TV lights and the ice melted?

Who could have comprehended, 40 years later, this?

TV Curling Wars!

Starting with the first televised event of the year, a whole new era in the roaring game began Wednesday night in the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.

The Olympics, Brier, World Championships, Olympic Trials and other properties have become the television phenomenon of sports. But now regular-season curling may follow.

Out of the ashes of a crashed contract involving unpaid bills, CBC pulled Grad Slam curling off the air last year. However, Rogers Sportsnet decided to buy the business, lock, stock and barrel and to control all aspects of it, essentially becoming owner.

There seems to be no stopping the rocket ride being enjoyed by curling on TV.

The Masters started last night with the usual $100,000 in prize money but the unusual two-telecasts a day on Sportsnet, involving both the Rogers Network and CBC on the weekend.

And at a players meeting before they took to the ice last night, to the surprise of all, Sportnet made an announcement which floored everybody in the room.

The players were told if one men's team should win all four events they'll be awarded a million-dollar bonus.

And that in the event no team does, the top three teams in the four events will receive bonus money of $50,000, $30,000 and $20,000 repectively.

"Sportsnet is committed to growing the Grand Slam of Curling like never before and the addition of the substantial bonus truly delivers on that promise," said Scott Moore, president of broadcasting for Rogers Media.

"The Grand Slam is a high performance, world-class series boasting the cream of the crop in international curling and with these new prizes up for grabs, the competitive rivalry in the series will rise to a whole new level Ń which is great for curling fans, the athletes and the sport."

Every curler on the property walked out of the room in various degrees of shock, surprise and excitement for now and for the future. And nobody more than Edmonton's Kevin Martin, whose legacy is very much tied into the Grand Slam concept and a couple Brier boycotts to launch it

"This day is so significant in so many ways," said the Olympic gold- and silver-medal winning skip, four-time Brier champ, and the winner of a record 14 Grand Slam titles. Martin is the first curler to skip teams winning over $2 million.

"Both the announcements at this meeting are significant and not just for the money involved.

"Today's curling is so competitive, there are so many teams here capable of winning this weekend, that the chances of winning all four of them is not what maybe it once was," said Martin, who once won five in a row but not four in the same year.

"The extra $100,000 guaranteed to be shared by the top three teams is huge because of making the series more relevant from one event to the next one.

"But overall, it's just the statement it makes to us from Rogers and Sportsnet where they're taking this. They're really taking this under their wing and this says they're really serious about making it even bigger and better.

"It's so great for curling because Rogers and Sportsnet can make it happen," said Martin, who will play John Epping of Toronto in the first telecast of the new era Thursday at 10 a.m. Edmonton time, with defending Brier and world champion Glenn Howard's Ontario team and Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg up next at at 1:30 p.m. Mountain, both on Sportsnet West.

"Having them as owners really puts curling in a good situation. It does say a lot about the brand. Sportsnet would not have got involved in ownership of it all if they didn't see the strength of the product. The sky is the limit," added Martin.

"It just makes us all feel so good. There is so much positive energy."

And it's not just the men. The women, who are also here playing for $100,000 in this event will have a bonus, too, even though they are only involved in two of the Grand Slams to this point. Win 'em both and they'll get a bonus $100,000. If not they'll split $25,000 bonus money Ń $12,500, $7,500 and $5,000.

But the excitement with the curlers with the multi-million-dollar project is that it will feature 100 hours of live national TV for the four Grand Slam events this year, instead of a final on TV. That's truly going from zero to 100.

"It was dead," said Howard. "We were scared. We were nervous. We didn't think we'd have any Grand Slam curling this winter.

"Now that Sportsnet has decided to basically buy us, we couldn't be happier. There are a lot of curlers here for this first one who are pretty happy people," he said.

"It's pretty exciting. Two months ago we were planning for a season without a Slam event and now we have a season like we've never had before with a chance of it being twice as big next year and who knows from there," said 2006 Olympic champion Brad Gushue of Newfoundland. "For a young team like ours it really gives us a chance to expand our sponsorship. We lost some sponsors this summer when word got out it was dead. Now we're getting new ones coming on."

And that's not it. Sportsnet also purchased the provincial rights to have the equivalent of a curling version of Hockey Day in Canada for both men's and women's going from the Ontario final to the Manitoba final to the Alberta final this year and the B.C. final kicking in next year. That's another 100 hours.

"That's just huge," said Howard. "It makes each of those provincials national events. The television TV numbers should be amazing leading into the Brier."

The big benefactor of the deal will be Edmonton, the city which holds the Brier record with 281,985 in 2005 and is already off to a solid start with 112,652 sold, and with package sales for the opening and playoff weekends just going on sale now.

A full day of national TV exposure with teams winning their way into the Brier is a million-dollar bonus for the 2013 Edmonton Brier as well.

And the network plans on doubling air time for both the regular-season and provincial playoffs.

If all that isn't enough, TSN is going from 200 hours of telecasting the jewels of curling, Brier, Scotties, Canada Cup and Continental Cup. and a totally revamped TSN Skins Game and world championships to 300-plus hours. It's also expanding coverage of the Canada Cup which will go a long way to deciding the field for next year's Roar of the Rings Olympic trials, which will bring coverage to over 380 hours in 2012-13. And there's been talk of next year's Ryder Cup-style Continental Cup being held in Las Vegas.

People prejudiced about the sport where men sweep with brooms and throw rocks at houses may not want to believe it. But it's ballistic.

And while the TSN story is one thing, Sportsnet taking on ownership of the game affects the curlers more.

For the curlers it goes from very scary with no events on TV where they can wear their sponsor logos to something that is almost hard to comprehend in the other direction.

"It's a massive undertaking owning the event from soup to nuts," says Navaid Mansuri, VP of programing. "It involves everything from hiring the ice-maker to selling the tickets. It allows us complete end-to-end control of the event for fans and sponsors on sire and on television.

"It really is a phenomenal story," said TSN president Stewart Johnston told your correspondent last year as TSN's curling ratings continued to climb at the Saskatoon Brier. "We now consider curling a pillar property on TSN. It's become a ratings powerhouse year after year."

And that's not the whole story. TSN now televises more hours curling than CFL action.

Add the Sportsnet/CBC coverage, current and projected with the new era that begins today with the start of TV Curling Wars, and it's mind-boggling. And TSN thinks it will help not hurt their numbers in the future.

"We have the jewels. The other curling provides as the lead-in to our jewels," said TSN's Johnston Wednesday. "I think we're far, far away from reaching the saturation point on TV with curling."

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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