In February 1998, for the first time in the modern era, curling was contested at the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan as a full medal-sport. Television coverage was spotty: U.S. rights-holder CBS ignored the sport, and even Canadian TV commitments were half-measured: only the playoffs games were covered in their entirety.
The athletes were, remarkably, the first to realize that a global curiosity was taking place. Email systems set up on behalf of the athletes by NAOC (Nagano Organizing Committee) and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) were filled with tens of thousands of messages from all corners of the globe. Some Olympic fans weren’t quite sure what they were watching, but they definitely wanted more of it.
Following the Games, their coffers boosted with fresh IOC funding, the World Curling Federation began a program of "bricks and mortar", offering interest-free loans for startup curling facilities in various European and Asian nations. In 1998, gold was captured by Canada (women) and Switzerland (men).
Opening Ceremonies, Torino 2006
This sport – played on ice with neither skates, sequined outfits nor bloodied noses – is so hot that one Olympic curling website crashed after 12.9 million hits, TV commentators said. (The Gazette, Colorado Springs)
Four years later in Salt Lake City, Utah, a new U.S. Olympic broadcast partner, NBC, made a cautious commitment to curling via their cable affiliates. Those channels quickly experienced skyrocketing ratings, and executives hurriedly added more curling to their TV plans. Canadian television made a typically strong commitment and the host broadcasting company, CBC, won the IOC’s major broadcasting award for its international feed.
According to a poll on the NBC Olympics website, curling was the 2nd most favorite sport to watch at the Winter Olympics.
Curling was now a global sporting phenomenon of curiosity and interest. Clubs sprang up in the U.S. – particularly, remarkably, in warm-weather states – and NBC partnered with USA Curling to produce additional packaged curling shows in non-Olympic years. European sports TV giant Eurosport was soon to cover the annual European Championships as well as the World Championships. And through it all, more and more media outlets gave airtime and print space to curling. In 2002, gold was captured by Norway (men) and Great Britain (women).
Canada's Brad Gushue mobbed at an airport
Nearly as many British TV viewers (5.7 million) tuned in for late night women’s curling as for the FA Cup football final (6.3 million).
(IOC, 2002 Olympic Television Research Centre, Sports Marketing Surveys Ltd.)
Curling’s growing popularity and influence reached new levels during and following the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy. The curiosity and interest of the casual observer was now being replaced by definitive efforts to play, and/or to help build infrastructure to play where none is available.
In 2006, gold was captured by Canada (men) and Sweden (women).
Curling has gained a record television audience in Italy at the Turin Winter Olympics, sweeping even figure skating aside. Nearly five million Italians tuned in to watch Italy’s unranked men pull off a shocker on Wednesday evening, winning their second straight game and upsetting highly-rated United States 6-5 before stands full of roaring fans.
"Curling had a bigger audience than figure skating," Franco Zumofen, Italy’s ice sports federation vice president told Reuters on Thursday, barely able to hide his astonishment. The Turin Olympics Organizing Committee were similarly amazed by a 23 percent audience share for a sport with nothing in common with football, Italy’s traditional sporting pursuit.
“Almost five million viewers for curling, in a country like Italy where football is the favorite sport, is completely unexpected,” said Giuseppe Gattino, a Turin organizing committee spokesman at a news conference.
Japan's women made an impact in 2006
The impact of the Olympic Games cannot be understated on any and all grass roots marketing and promotion efforts. All curling nations outside Canada gear their entire national team program around the Olympic Games, and while Canada is unique in its ability to host vibrant and successful national championships that are on par, or even exceed, the Olympic Games as successful events, Canada’s national team program is now developed in quadrennial Olympic cycles.
One of the few success stories of Japan’s torrid time at the Turin Winter Olympic Games last month was its curlers, who charmed the country with their good looks and gutsy attitude that brought them to the brink of fighting for a medal. So popular had the curling team become by its final game, it reached ratings of 13.2 percent even though it was shown in the middle of the night.
But it’s not just the curlers who’ve seen their commercial value skyrocket. Their sport has received a major boost, too. The Japan Curling Federation has apparently been swamped by calls from people looking to take up the sport.
(Mainichi Daily News, Japan)
The Olympic Games create massive internet traffic, telephone calls and surprise walk-in appearances for every curling club in the world. Therefore, it is important for every curling club, every club sponsor or partner, every bonspiel or cashspiel committee member or other club volunteer to recognize this impact and cater to it. And, in non-Olympic years, to build on it each year through the quadrennial cycle, leading to the next Games.
NBC Universal said Tuesday that coverage of women's curling on Saturday averaged 1.26 million viewers on MSNBC – making it the network’s most-watched Saturday broadcast since the start of the war in Iraq nearly three years ago. CNBC saw an even larger growth spurt. While it averaged just 155,000 viewers in primetime in January, it averaged 1.04 last week for its curling coverage, up 700 percent over last February’s average in the 5 to 8 pm timeslot and three and a half times more than its January average. CNBC's weekday Olympic curling coverage is averaging 913,000 total viewers (0.62 HH rating) up 608 percent vs. Feb. 2005 (129,000). USA Network was reportedly averaging 1 million viewers, up 51 percent from a year ago.
Canada hosted the world at Vancouver 2010, and curling blew the doors off its so-called cult status. Worldwide television figures climbed to new highs and the venue was jammed with rowdy sellout crowds. Athletes like Canada's Cheryl Bernard became household names, scoring higher than Hollywood celebrities in online search engines.
Next up is Sochi 2014, and each and every curling facility has the opportunity to grow and market itself within its community, anywhere in the world, at an unprecedented level. The time to start this campaign of growth is now.