Curling Lesson For Hockey and Baseball

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIApril 1, 2009

BROONFIELD, CO - FEBRUARY 28:  Skip John Shuster directs his teammates after delivering a stone against Team Tyler George during the Men's US Curling Olympic Trials Finals at the Broomfield Event Center on February 28, 2009 in Broomfield, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The results of the recent Women's World Curling Championship provide lessons for NHL and international hockey, and for professional baseball, too.

For hockey, at the NHL level, the lesson is in one of goals. Curling has been quietly growing around the globe.  The World Curling Federation now has forty-four member countries.

Yet, with this growth there was never any attempt to becoming a "Big Four" sport in the United States, or to get a large American television contract. In fact, curling has grown despite American indifference. 

When was the last time curling was on American television?

Those governing the sport of curling realize that the sport's prosperity does not depend on the American market and, free from that obsession, it has enjoyed quiet, steady growth around the world.

Contrast that with the state of the NHL these days as it faces potential contraction or relocation. It has failed to get a rich American television contract while its "Big Four" salary structure is getting harder to maintain.

There was the failed strategy of expanding into markets where there was little previous contact with hockey, in an attempt to win a rich television contract while simultaneously ignoring "traditional" markets in Canada and the northern United States. 

This year, there are ten money-losing American markets, some facing precarious, uncertain futures. The NHL overreaches, while curling does not bite off more than it can chew.

At the international level, in my article "The Failure Of International Hockey", I outlined how hockey has failed to produce competitive teams outside the "Big Seven" countries—Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Its world championship is filled with B-level teams from other countries who never challenge for the championship, but get the rare upset, only to be quickly eliminated, often with embarrassing and humiliating scores.

This year, the women's curling championship was won by an unexpected China team, while the traditional team-to-beat, Canada, did not even get a medal. 

This was not due to a slippage by the defending Canadian team, but rather occurred because of the improvement of the competition. No longer can Canada be guaranteed an automatic medal.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare the development of hockey and curling.  It may be much easier to develop a top curler than a hockey player.

But the fact remains, in the nearly 30 years since the 1972 Canada-USSR match, top hockey is still confined to the same group.  International hockey has not broadened its base. There has been little attempt to develop the game in the other B-level countries, especially at the children's and junior levels.

On the women's side, the result is even more miserable.  There are only two competitive teams—Canada and the United States.

Professional baseball can also learn from curling, and the lesson can be summed up in the word: respect.

The recent World Baseball Classic has made some headway iis garnering support by the American public. I have read some enlightened articles and comments on Bleacher Report and Yardbarker by Americans who are starting to question the "superiority" of American baseball.

But there is still too much arrogance and ignorance in the face of all evidence. In both the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, the American team failed to even make the finals. 

The most recent WBC saw five other teams come away with better records than the Americans.

Yet, Americans continue to insist their baseball is the best, and that Major League Baseball is, in fact, the "major league".

Instead of facing facts, Americans hide behind excuses like, "We didn't play our best players" and "We don't have anything to prove."

Some even claim that, "It was the wrong time of year" and "Nobody wants to get injured".

The tournament gets belittled.  Even U.S. players (i.e. Kevin Youkilis) are criticized.

In international hockey, a sport where players are more likely to get injured than baseball, most of the top players are eager to play for their country once their team gets eliminated from the NHL playoffs. 

No one belittles the World Championship as an "exhibition".

Similarly, in curling, the top teams from each country participate and no one belittles the tournament.

There is also the matter of MLB calling its championship the "World Series" even though only twice has a team from another country participated.

But the results from the World Baseball Classic are making American claims more and more hollow. Not all the best players play in the major leagues. The Americans have yet to win and there is plenty to prove. 

Baseball also has received a black eye internationally after being expelled from the Olympics, the first time that has happened to a sport since 1936. 

Curling, however, is still there.

If hockey and baseball want to grow internationally, they are going to have to change, and they've got the blueprint laid out by curling.