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"We want to make curling cool" — Rolling the dice on the Roaring Game

The normally staid world of curling — a sport where the in-arena experience is perhaps best described as sedate — should soon get a boost on and off the ice.
Team Wild Card One skip Brad Gushue, left, makes a shot as second Brett Gallant sweeps during finals action against Team Alberta at the Tim Hortons Brier in Lethbridge, Alta., Sunday, March 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The normally staid world of curling — a sport where the in-arena experience is perhaps best described as sedate — should soon get a boost on and off the ice. 

Ontario's fledgling sports-betting industry has curling in its sights, a development that could inject much-needed energy in bonspiel venues next season and provide bettors with plenty of options for a sport loaded with gambling potential. 

"We want to make curling cool," said Nic Sulsky, chief commercial officer for PointsBet Canada. "Curling is already fun and Canadians already love it.

"I think there's a huge amount of Canadians who I think are ready for curling to take that next step and we want to help be that foundation to help it get to that next level."

PointsBet Canada was named the official sports betting partner of Curling Canada last fall. The promotional push has been on through the spring now that Ontario's sports betting market is open to major gaming operators.

Commercial spots featuring the Trailer Park Boys comedy group and members of Team Kerri Einarson and Team Kevin Koe were in heavy rotation during the recent Season of Champions events.

Curling Canada has said PointsBet will offer "exciting and innovative ways for fans to engage with Curling Canada events." Specific details weren't provided but Sulsky said plans are in the works on several fronts ahead of a full rollout next season. 

"We are a technology company but we're also focused on entertainment," Sulsky said. "So how can PointsBet add to the overall experience of a Curling Canada event with gambling and with activation in brand? 

"A case in point is our ambassadors are the Trailer Park Boys. What kind of impact would the Trailer Park Boys have on an in-venue crowd? Or if they have a microphone?"

It would be fascinating to see how the Ricky, Julian and Bubbles characters might invigorate the traditionally older curling crowd, where it's not unusual to see the odd spectator bring their knitting to the arena. 

Some markets are hotter than others though and the March 3-12 Tim Hortons Brier at London's Budweiser Gardens should be one to watch since it's in an Ontario university town with strong sports roots. 

The opportunity to bet live on teams, scores and prop bets — in a much livelier setting — may help curling finally attract more of that coveted younger audience.

"Gambling is going to be one of the ways in which you can attract that new demo and then hopefully later on in the funnel, bring them in to your event," said Mike Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University's department of sport management. "It's a slow (build).

"But iGaming and sports gambling is definitely going to be the first step to try to hook and bait these new consumers into the sport."

The gambling component is already a prominent fixture at Ontario pro sports events. Some fans keep one eye on the play and the other on their mobile device to check their bets or take advantage of in-game gambling action.

Like other sports, curling has an endless array of prop potential. Over-unders on total scores, end scores and shooting percentages could be in the mix along with bets on how many ends are blanked or whether there's a steal.

"I think it's a great thing for the sport," said Matt Dunstone, who will skip a new Manitoba-based team next season. "It's just more engagement for the sport, which is exactly what we want to see.

"I think the sky is the limit with curling too on the live betting side of it."

In addition, games with lopsided scorelines — often a problem at national championships when weaker provinces and territories are in the field — may hold people's attention for longer than just a few ends.

"What we know about gambling is that it does increase the interest level of matches and games that are blowouts, that are less exciting per se than some others," Sulsky said.

"So I think that what we're going to see is that dwell time and audience are going to stay at events longer and watch more intently."

There are already over a dozen sportsbook apps taking legal bets online in the province — DraftKings announced its launch on Wednesday — in addition to the Proline+ service via the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. 

Curling teams are getting involved too. PointsBet has partnered with the Koe and Einarson rinks and Team John Epping became partners with Coolbet a few years ago.

Team Brendan Bottcher lead Ben Hebert, who played with Koe last season and is a PointsBet ambassador, said the inclusion of betting can help build on the fan passion and energy he has observed at curling events since attendance restrictions were lifted.

"I think that the popularity of curling has really been showing through," said Hebert. "But I do think that obviously gambling on the games is something else that we can (use to) trigger some younger viewership. 

"I think that for the longevity of the sport … anything that we can do to promote curling and bring more dollars into our sport is a positive."

Sulsky said PointsBet won't be directly involved with the Sportsnet-owned Grand Slam circuit, but that he's "working on" having a presence on the six-event series. 

Three Grand Slam stops are scheduled for Ontario, including the season-opening Oct. 4-9 Boost National in North Bay.

"I think we all understand that whether it's a Curling Canada event or a GSOC event, ultimately we're in the business of engaging the curling fan," Sulsky said. "So our goal is to offer as many curling events as possible."

The full 2022-23 calendar has yet to be finalized. It remains unclear how each gaming operator might spotlight curling and whether betting options will exist for lower-level tour events or mixed doubles competitions.

On the sport betting integrity front, Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson said organization members, athletes and volunteers all have to sign a code of conduct and conflict of interest policy. It covers conflicted betting and gambling activities, but the arrival of single-sport betting necessitated a policy update, she said, which is in the review and approvals process.

It is made clear, Henderson said in a recent interview, that anyone who could influence the outcome of a match — a list that includes players, icemakers, to people who approve funding — cannot bet on games. 

Staff members also take training in match manipulation and the federation's partners handle betting integrity systems with external monitoring companies, she added.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario is responsible for regulating the gaming sector in the province in accordance with the principles of honesty and integrity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press