This season has been a difficult one for competition organisers, I can tell you. It is all to do with competing diaries and the needs of teams with different interests and issues. It is to do with not enough weekends in the season; it is a story of junior teams wanting to compete in senior competitions; it is to do with teams wanting to test their mettle abroad; it is about competition organisers trying to maintain their competition at the top of their particular tree.
There are, I suppose, certain competitions that need to be given precedence in all of this. As far as the World Championships and European Championships are concerned, their dates tend to set in stone a couple of years in advance. The Scottish Championships – and I mean both junior, mens and ladies competitions here, by the way – will need to have dates about three to four weekends in advance of the relevant world championship. There are qualifying weekends for the finals. Another weekend in the Scottish diary needs to be found for a European qualifying competition. Suddenly, if you are looking at the Scottish diary, you have already accounted for five or six weekends in the season – and the season only last twenty-five odd weeks; two of those are taken up with Christmas and New Year.
Some of our domestic competitions are struggling to fill their quotas; many find themselves unable to 'attract' the top Scottish teams. Cheap flights, sponsorship and funding have enabled teams to travel abroad far more than was the case even ten years ago. I can understand why top teams would want to travel to major competitions abroad; they will better themselves by competing against the top teams in Europe. Is it not ironic though, that taxpayers money is spent giving top teams the chance to compete abroad to the detriment of the Scottish circuit? That money, which might equally well be spent developing a meaningful series of domestic curling competitions, is spent instead filling the coffers of Ryanair, EasyJet, various hotels in exotic cities and, of course, the overseas competitions themselves.
There is a danger that I become a bit Colonel Blimpish in all of this; it does not do to be too insular – after all, we have a number of competitions in Scotland that aim to attract foreign teams to these shores. That said, I do think that we need to plan ahead just a little bit better than perhaps we have these past few years and – this might sound a bit radical – occasionally make different choices than the ones that we have made in past seasons. 'The needs of the many' should be the mantra for the future in my view – not 'the needs of the few'. We should set ourselves a very simple objective here – to improve the standard of domestic competitions in Scotland to such an extent that European teams will literally be gagging to come over here and compete – not necessarily just the other way round.
Consider, for a moment, what we have to offer:
• History and heritage
• Good direct transportation links with most curling countries in Europe
• Great facilities
• Existing competitions
• Attractive destinations
• Strong domestic game with a good depth of talent
In other words, we already have more than enough going for us to turn Scotland into the destination of choice for competitive curlers from Europe.
What do we need to do to achieve this? Well, for starters, we need to get some communication going; we need to get people to talk to each other.
Indulge me here for a minute; let us take the Under 21s ladies and mens circuits in Scotland as an example of a possible way forward. The competitions on the circuit (I use that word loosely, by the way) are the Greenacres Junior Masters, the Kinross Classic, the Dunvegan/Gogar Salver weekend at Murrayfield, the Highland Junior International at Inverness and the Lockerbie Junior tournament. Of those, the Lockerbie mens competition struggled this year because most of the top junior mens teams were involved in the first weekend of the Scottish Championship Qualifiers; the Murrayfield weekend failed to attract Anna Sloan’s team (curling in Canada), Teams King, Fleming and Gray (curling in Forfar), Eve Muirhead (curling with her senior team in Canada); The Inverness competition attracted a pretty strong line up. The Kinross Classic was likewise well-supported; I suppose that the only absentees were the young Duncan Menzies team (they were supporting their ice rink’s open competition, so fair enough – and they won it, to boot!).
I suppose I am arguing for a number of things.
• competition organisers should try to get together to avoid clashes where possible
• a meeting of interested parties (coaches, teams, ice rink management, competition organisers, to name but a few) should be convened around about now to put together a meaningful and cohesive diary of events in the form of a circuit for next season.
• Proper individual competition prizes and an overall league prize (as happens in the Under 17s circuit). My own personal preference would be that the winner of the mens and womens circuit would be based on results in all five age group competitions and would be include automatic qualification for the Scottish Junior Championship finals, automatic qualification for the Scottish Qualifying Championships and a funded trip abroad.
• The dates in the circuit should address the needs of as many people as possible, though where there is a clash, I am sorry but we should definitely not have a free weekend here in Scotland to allow one team the chance to compete in a Canadian Cashspiel, for example. Sometimes, difficult choices have to be made.
I wonder if a commercial sponsor could be found to sponsor the circuits. Failing which, perhaps British Curling would be able to divert some of the new money that has been found to fund the elite curling programme to sponsor the circuits? If their aim is to broaden the competitive base in curling, this initiative would surely move us towards the fulfilling of that laudable objective.
Here’s another thought: why not two competitions get together during a holiday period and cooperate with each other to attract some foreign teams to these shores? The competitions could run say Monday to Wednesday and Friday to Sunday. Perhaps teams that have travelled could be hosted between the competitions to cut down on their costs. This approach would have the added benefit of freeing up a weekend.
What I am arguing for is a bit of joined-together thinking and a realisation that competitions should not be competing AGAINST each other, but cooperating WITH each other to develop their competitions and the overall health of the game here in Scotland.
A similar approach could be adopted at the open level and the mini tour could be revived and resuscitated to give teams some much-needed competition before being flung into their national championships relatively 'cold'.
Food for thought, I hope.
Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year break. Here’s hoping that we all get the chance to curl outdoors, by the way – whisper this last bit – even in a Grand Match?