I was up in Inverness at their annual skins tournament. Fantastic weekend and great fun to compete against those I normally just watch and comment on. We heroically reached the quarter finals of the competition completely against the run of play and then, equally heroically, lost our game against Andrew Craigie. Them’s the rubs, but the weekend itself was what curling is all about. Ninety-six like-minded people gathered together for a bit of competition – taken seriously whilst on the ice and a bit of craic – taken equally seriously by many, who shall remain nameless, as they made gallant efforts in search of the next morning’s headache. The success of their previous-day endeavours was evident in the long and unshaven faces that greeted your correspondent early on Sunday morning. And that was the women – you should have seen the men.
But chat there was a-plenty and many were the opinions expressed in good faith.
And I am worried about our sport. Really worried.
>I am worried about it from a competitive perspective because, frankly, our system seems to be breeding an air almost of resignation amongst the next generation of curlers coming through.
>I am worried about it from a facilities point of view – it seems that the only ways to get new facilities are either to rely on local councils’ largesse or take a suicidal leap down the debt trail and hock yourself to the bank for silly amounts of money.
>I am worried about it at grassroots level because the numbers of keen and committed club curlers seem to be dwindling year-on-year.
Worried, worried, worried.
At the moment, serious amounts of money are spent developing youth curling. Coaching is available and those at the top of the junior tree are offered funded trips to overseas competitions (sometimes in Canada) as well as excellent nutritional and fitness programmes. Once the junior curlers have attained the age of majority, they are cast into the big bad world of mainstream competitive curling and told to get on with it. Many do and make a right good fist of it too. Others last a season or two, then, to all intents and purposes, give the competitive game up. Imagine – everything given to them on a plate then – they give it all up! This season, the proof is in the pudding; only eight teams have bothered to enter the Scottish Ladies Championships and a couple of them are juniors.
What’s going on? Is it maybe too easy as a junior – are we breeding a comfort-zone that is perhaps too comfortable? I would have thought that I had died and gone to heaven, given the overseas trips and the coaching that youngsters get these days. But in giving all of that support, are we breeding out of the curler that fighting 'bite' that is needed to progress things further up the greasy pole?
Maybe, the system should not drop the twenty-two year old curler fresh out of juniors quite so quickly. Perhaps, there should be an intermediate level that keeps those promising enough at junior level with a bit of support in their early senior years. One thing I want to see happen this season is that a serious challenge comes forward from the mid-twenties brigade. Glen Muirhead showed that it could be done last season with his fabulous tilt at the Scottish title. I want to see John Hamilton, or Logan Gray, or Scott Hamilton, or Sandy Reid – I could go on; I want to see these teams press forward and challenge the Murdochs, the McMillans (whose team, to be fair, includes two relatively recent junior champions, Sandy Gilmour and Ross Paterson) and the Macdonalds. I like the fact that Tom Brewster has taken three recently aged-out juniors under his wing this season; they will learn a lot.
I want Eve Muirhead to be challenged by more than one early twenties team (Sarah Reid). There should be three or four rinks – not just one. Something is wrong when young curlers who were good enough to win the Scottish Junior Championship not that many years ago do not feel inclined even to enter their national championship. We should have twenty teams entering – never mind eight!
Ice rinks – ah, ice rinks. No ice rinks – no sport; no ice rinks – no Olympic medals; no ice rinks – no World and European Championships; no ice rinks – no curling. It seems that in the present climate, ice rinks will be hard to come by. You might get the odd council building a rink that our sport would then, in all probability have to share with skating and hockey, unless you are particularly lucky and live in Dumfries. You might be lucky and live in a town where there is a rink in existence and that said rink is in good enough nick to continue for some time – maybe with a little investment money courtesy of some quango or other (see quangos? Occasionally, they have their uses!).
But now, I’m going to tell you what we don’t need – and that’s 'don’t' with a capital 'd'. We don’t need a new facility with debt hanging round its neck like an Invernessian hangover. The difference between an Invernessian hangover and debt is that the hangover goes away tomorrow; debt doesn’t! Apart from the planning difficulties that seem to have beset the National Academy project in Kinross, there is a real funding issue that needs to be addressed and that is the shortfall between funds raised and final costs.
There is another issue though and that is the ambitious income plans set out in a presentation given to the Inaugural Meeting of the Kinross Curling Trust on 15 November 2009. Suffice it to say that income in year one is projected to be £495K. Let me put that into some kind of perspective: I am not going to give confidential information away here, but that figure is significantly higher than the turnover of another ice rink, not a million miles away over the Forth Road Bridge, situated, as near as makes no odds, in the centre of Edinburgh and adjacent to a big stadium, which claims to be the busiest ice rink in all of Europe (the ice rink, that is; not the stadium). Bear in mind where Murrayfield is situated – bang in the heart of a city with a population of 500,000; bear in mind that the rink has a serious veterans club that uses the rink during the day; bear in mind that there are other ladies clubs that use the rink during the day; bear in mind that it runs at 100% occupancy over seven sheets in two of the three evening sessions and is relatively well patronised in the awful 9.30pm slot as well. Bear all of that in mind and then ask yourself exactly from where the projected turnover figure for the National Academy is coming.
I hate to say this to some very committed friends of mine, but we need to get real. If you can’t raise the money and if you can’t achieve the income projections, then the whole thing needs to be scaled back to a sustainable level that gives the project a fighting chance of survival and long-term health. If that means losing out on some of the available funding, then so be it. I would rather have a sustainable rink with less funding than an unsustainable rink with more funding, if you see what I mean.
But there is an important lesson here for any people with ambitions to build / renovate a curling rink. At the end of the project, debt has to be contained to a sustainable level that enables the business to pay the annual interest, pay off the debt over a reasonable period of time, put monies aside for investment in new stones, new equipment, building refurbishment and the like, as and when needed. It is a tall order in today’s climate, make no mistake.
And that leads nicely to my last worry – namely the state and health of the club game. I have been lucky enough over the past season or two to have been asked to go and speak at various club dinners. Almost all of the club supporters – and they are the backbone of the game – sing from one hymn sheet. It is becoming more and more difficult to sustain club leagues. Numbers, if not falling, are definitely stagnating. This is not healthy. I wish I knew the answer, but I did like Mike Ferguson’s take on things. Mike is the energetic and committed owner of Forfar and he is making a determined push to attract the mid-30s and upwards market – specifically the retired active sportsman, so your ex rugby or hockey player who is still looking for a bit of competition but who is maybe not up for belting around a rugby pitch of a Saturday afternoon! The other target market might be the recent retiree.
Both these demographic groups have a bit of money in their back pockets and the second one at least also brings that priceless benefit to the party – namely the ability to fill the ice rink during quiet times. If I were the owner of an ice rink lucky enough to have an Area Development Officer in place, I would be taking them away from running the junior club – important job though that is – and shoving them in the general direction of the middle-aged and older!
A nice note on which to end, I think.