Sochi Olympics: Popularity, Buzz and Drama of Curling with NBC's Andrew Catalon

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJanuary 27, 2014

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The Winter Olympics are just days away, which means it's time, America, to pull those brooms out of the garage and get sweeping. Curling is back!

Curling, the Olympic sport where competitors alternate sliding round stones down a sheet of ice to earn points for whoever gets closest to the middle of a large target area, took the world by storm four years ago during the Winter Games in Vancouver.

Curling has everything you would want in a winter Olympic sport. Every throw—is it a throw or a toss…or a push…a slide…? I should probably know this—provides drama, especially as the competitors near the completion of each end*.

(*A quick primer/reminder: Each match consists of 10 ends, which is similar to an inning in baseball. Teams alternate sliding eight rocks down the sheet to see which team finishes closest to the center. Every stone closer to the center than the opponents' nearest stone earns a point. The team with the most points after 10 ends wins.)

There is an incredible amount of strategy involved in each end, as blocking and screening are an integral part of winning. The crowds can get incredibly raucous, making the entire competition feel like a giant party on ice. And the personalities! Who would have thought that men and women sliding on the ice could be so…so…cool?

The original idea for this article was to figure out what this year's curling will be. It turns out, curling may just be the next curling, given the growing popularity of the sport and the limited selection of Winter Olympic events that have the same kind of communal experience for both the athletes and the spectators.

Heck, even NFL All-Pro J.J. Watt said during the Pro Bowl that he's excited to watch hockey at the Olympics (Watt grew up playing hockey), as well as curling. When you have NFL players going on national TV advocating for your sport, plus the Internet geeks like me who love it, you've got a winner.

Polish up your stones, because curling is back in a big way.

I had the chance to chat with Andrew Catalon, who will be heading over to Sochi to call much of the curling play-by-play action for NBC this year. Catalon is one of the holdovers from last Olympics, so I asked him about the difference between this year's coverage and how they covered the event four years ago.

Plus, I asked him what I tried to find…is there anything that can become the "next" curling?

FUSSEN, GERMANY - DECEMBER 10:  A player throws a rock during the Olympic Qualification Tournament on December 10, 2013 in Fussen, Germany.  (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images,)
Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images

Bleacher Report: First, in my search to figure out which sport will be the next curling, I realized that...there isn't one. Curling is the next curling. There is no other winter Olympic sport with as much personality and flair that people can play as easily on a recreational level around the world.

Is that the allure to curling as an Olympic sport, or have I wildly oversimplified things?

Andrew Catalon: Looking at the roster of Winter Olympic sports, I don't see a "next curling." There's such a charm to the sport that it's hard to compare it to others. And while there's an increase of curlers in the U.S. and more non-Olympic television coverage, it is still viewed as a "once every four years event."

I hope that changes because I do believe there's a market for it, but for now, that remains the reality of it, and that's also what makes it such a hit at the Olympics.

PARK CITY, UT - DECEMBER 13: Matthew Mortensen (top) and Preston Griffall of the United States are on track in the Doubles competition during the Viessmann Luge World Cup event at Utah Olympic Park December 13, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Swee
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

B/R: The best I can come up with in the "next curling" category is luge relay, which sounds somehow more ridiculous than doubles luge, if at all possible.

Why do the Summer Games seem to have a ton of kitschy sports but the Winter Games just has curling? Am I giving too much credibility to a cross-country skiing event where competitors stop to shoot things?

AC: I think part of it is based on the pure volume of sports in the summer compared to the winter. There are so many events in the Summer Olympics that a few are bound to become the "next big thing." Team handball is something I could see picking up steam in the U.S.

I have announced luge relay and it's a great addition, but the Summer Games are so much larger and therefore there are more opportunities to find a breakout event.

B/R: Your career has really taken off since last Winter Olympics, most notably calling some huge college basketball games recently for CBS. Seriously, how much do you owe your career to stones, brooms and crazy pants?

AC: There's no question curling opened a lot of doors for me, and I would be lying if I said I saw that coming. I've had some incredible opportunities, especially with the NFL and NCAA basketball on CBS, and I owe a lot of it to a sport played with brooms and stones. It's easy to joke about it, but I truly am grateful.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

B/R: Are you concerned curling could be like poker, four years past its boom? In other words, is there a fear curling has jumped the shark? And if so, what kind of skis would that jump use? Could that become an Olympic sport?

AC: Based on the reaction I'm already getting on Twitter, I do not think curling is past its boom. I like poker, but it seemed like there became too much of it on TV. Even though there are more curling games on TV, it's still a bit of a hidden gem.

B/R: I remember after the last Winter Olympics you told me you couldn't really get a sense during the event how big of a cult hit curling had become in the United States.

Four years later, with social media the way it is and NBC streaming everything live online, do you expect even more excitement about the sport this time around?

AC: I think there are several factors that could make curling in Sochi even bigger than it was in Vancouver. First, social media is a larger part of the world these days, so the cult following can/should grow.

Second, John Shuster is back. He was such a lightning rod in Vancouver, and for him to recover and find his way back to the Olympics four years later is remarkable. He's re-written the script by getting back, but can he finish it off by earning a medal? I know that sounds somewhat dramatic, but I think he will be a big story again.

I do think the sellout crowds in Vancouver enhanced the product, and I realize it may be different in Sochi. But I still think it's going to be a big few weeks for curling.

Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Associated Press

B/R: Shuster had, shall we say, a horrible experience in Vancouver. With him back this year, be honest, how panicked should we be as American curling diehards? (Note: I loved curling in the Olympics and played online almost religiously for some time but have not watched one live event since the gold-medal match four years ago. Does that still qualify me as a diehard?)  

AC: As I mentioned, the fact that John is back here again is incredible. He took a beating in Vancouver and could have very easily walked away, but he made it back. He's already proven a lot just to get back here. And now I'm very anxious to see how he does the first time the game is on the line.

Keep in mind that John Benton was Shuster's teammate in Vancouver and Shuster beat Pete Fenson in the finals of the Olympic trials. So we should get some great insight from our team.

And there's no doubt you can put "curling diehard" on your resume...

Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Associated Press

B/R: Are there any expectations for the U.S. to medal? Are we just there to be group-stage fodder for the more traditional curling powerhouses? Can Shuster exorcise the curling demons?

AC: Here's the thing—if Shuster gets hot, he can beat anybody. He has beaten some of the favorites before, and he's very capable of doing it again. That said, the U.S. men are still a big underdog. The U.S. women can be a dangerous team. They have a lot of experience, and if they get a couple of breaks, they could be in position to medal.

B /R: You mentioned your NBC partners in John Benton and Pete Fenson. NBC has really responded to the attention curling received last time around. This year, the Peacock is assigning a team of six on-air announcers to cover the events on the sheet. (Sheet or sheets? Is the entire thing one sheet, or is each individual playing surface its own sheets?) 

AC: I would go with each team is on a separate sheet.

ANTONIO CALANNI/Associated Press

B/R: Last time around, you worked with Don Duguid and Colleen Jones in the booth, which created something of a "kid sent to stay with his crazy aunt and uncle" vibe to the telecast. Without a doubt the rapport between the two of them, and the way you balanced the mayhem, certainly added to the experience for the viewers.

This time, NBC has seemingly gone more analytical, or at least more curling focused, with former American Olympians Benton and Fenson alongside you and Jason Knapp doing play-by-play (stone-by-stone, perhaps?), with Trenni Kusnierek taking over for Elfi Schlegel as a sideline reporter. 

What should the viewers expect from the telecast this time around, given that you are the veteran now? Are you concerned about losing the magic that made 2010 so campy and fun?

AC: Great question. The dynamic with Don and Colleen was unlike any other booth I've been a part of. First, Don and I still keep in touch, and I consider him a great friend.

You had Don playing the role of your wild Canadian uncle and Colleen asking Wayne Gretzky if naked curling should be a sport. There were some priceless moments in that booth.

We all got along, but we all disagreed with each other too. It was like Thanksgiving dinner when you invited your crazy relatives over to eat. Except we were all watching curling together, and I'm going to miss that.

I don't think it's possible to recapture that dynamic, so this year will be different. But I've worked with John and he is very knowledgeable, and I look forward to working with Trenni and putting it all together. We'll have fun and find our own chemistry. Plus, Fred (Roggin) is hosting again, so I'm sure we'll have some one-liners shot back and forth across the many time zones we'll be apart.

Cassie Kovacevich/Associated Press

B/R: Do you have any plaid, rainbow or zig-zag suits you will be wearing to fit in with the regulars?

AC: Conversations have already taken place on that front. You very well could see a curling announcer from New Jersey rocking some crazy pants.