Sunday, October 27, 2013

The One about Falling Numbers of Curlers in Scotland

Computers are great things.  They add up; they subtract and they let you correct typing errors without using Tippex (other correction fluids are available).  I only discovered this, mind you, when a nice lady asked me what all the white scribbles were on my laptop screen.

But they are also a bit bad.  Apparently you can play games on them and this, so I am told, has led to a generation of feckless wasters spending all of their time glued to a screen playing computer games instead of getting out and doing things: things like tanner ba’ kicking against a wall; golf; swimming; rugby; tennis; cycling and, yes, curling.

Although we talk a great game and arguably, to the outside world, our sport has never been healthier with medals galore and all of the reflected glory they bring to armchair fans, the stark reality is that the numbers of participants has fallen dramatically these past twenty years or so.  I used to boast in the pub that Scotland was the second biggest curling nation after Canada (where there is, of course, absolutely hee-haw else to do in winter) with upwards of twenty-five thousand participants (I had made the number up, but I was not that far away from the truth of the matter).  Well, it ain’t twenty-five thousand participants now and nor are we the second biggest curling nation any more.  The USA, where for years curling was somewhat in the doldrums, has perked up.  Curling is a growth sport over the pond and they have leapt ahead of us in terms of the membership of their national body versus ours.

At this point, you will expect me to have a dig at the Royal Club.  I don’t think that would be fair.  The RCCC has been proactive in their activities to develop the sport.  Think of all the initiatives that the Royal Club has come up with in the past decade or so. 
·         For the younger generation, there is the Curling’s Cool programme, the annual summer camps and the revamped skills awards.  The club has also taken an active role in coordinating the universities curling programme and, for the past forty-odd years has run the Scottish schools championship as well, of course, as the Scottish Junior Championships.
·         For adults, there is the annual adult “camp” (some camp – it was at the North-West Castle hotel in Stranraer!) and the Virtual Clubs.
·         The club actively promotes disabled curling – not just for wheelchair users, but also now for visually-impaired and deaf curlers. 

For further information on all of these initiatives, go to and have a look at what is on offer.  I would argue that, were it not for these initiatives, the sport might well be in a far worse position than it is now. 

The Mother Club’s job has not been helped by the closure of a number of curling centres – places like Lochgoilhead, Forest Hills, Pitlochry, Letham Grange, Brora and Gogar Park.  I admit that many of these venues were kind of built in the wrong place and did not have a population hinterland large enough to sustain them.  That is not true though of the likes of Gogar in Edinburgh and Forest Hills just to the north of the Glasgow conurbation.  With the demise of each rink, the sport quietly lost many a curler.

At the current leakage rate, we will be plum out of curlers in about twenty-five years or so.  OK – so there is an element of hyperbole in the figures and someone once said something about “lies, damned lies and statistics”, but you get the picture.  The trouble is that all of this is happening over the long term.  It’s a bit like global warming; small changes every year that you don’t really notice until you take stock and compare things to fifty years ago (or in Scottish curling’s case, twenty years ago).  Perhaps most worryingly of all, to the likes of me at least, is the fact that at the recent AGM, there was much talk about ten curlers not being allowed to play in the Scottish Championship this coming year – important issue though that is, especially to the ten curlers involved - but not a lot of talk about the falling numbers playing our great sport!

At this point, let me introduce you to Logan Gray.  No – not that one; not the competitive curler Logan Gray with the loud trousers on the telly.  The one I want to introduce you to is a bit more thoughtful and contemplative.  He is the one who cares deeply about the future of his sport and is currently employed as the Ice Sports Development Officer in Stirling.  He is perhaps less well-known, but I would argue that he is the more important of the two – certainly when it comes to the good of the sport and its future. 

Logan was telling me about a couple of initiatives that he has introduced up in Stirling in which he is trying to enlist the support of the various clubs to back up his development programme.  Let him take up the story:

What I’m doing is asking the clubs to get their members to go out and find people to come to TryCurling sessions.  Once the members have found these new recruits they should accompany them to the session as a familiar face for support and also to socialise with them. It should make the new and very alien environment a little less daunting for the new curler!  The attraction to curling for the masses is the sociability of the sport and if you don’t know anyone it isn’t going to be very sociable at first…

The role the club has here is twofold.  I’m offering them a day and time suited to their club to maximise their opportunity to recruit but also to retain new curlers in the long run. So they need to pick a date and time that suits their club and members.   Secondly they need to motivate their members to get out there and find people.  We need to be more proactive and by having one session (per season) on a date tailored to a club, the whole membership can focus on it and all push to get people signed up.  It’s a more focused approach and once the date has passed the obligation is gone until next season. 

I think all clubs serious about their future should consider having a recruitment officer, as you mentioned, to carry out this role as when I speak to clubs and ask what they need help with. Every single club says “we need more members”.  This is very different to clubs being represented at TryCurling sessions – they need to go out and find people to attend the sessions. 

We need to play to our sport’s strengths and for me… that is acknowledging that people who curl are not randoms who come in off the street (Olympic fever aside).  People do not wake up in the morning and have an overwhelming urge to try curling.  A huge majority of people who currently curl have been brought into the sport by people they know who have targeted their friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, so curlers need to take responsibility for the future of our sport.  Curling clubs are lucky that they have a fantastic resource available to them in most ice rinks where the facility / development group/development officer / curling school arranges coaching opportunities for new curlers, unlike clubs in other sports who have to provide this for themselves to enable them to grow.  I’ve spent a lot of time with clubs over the last 6 months meeting them to explain that this resource exists for their use and encouraging them to use it more.  Don’t bring people in off the street and toss them straight into a league.  Clubs will have a better chance of retaining these new curlers if they have had a proper introduction to the sport from qualified coaches and learning alongside other novices.

Essentially what should happen is this.  The clubs actively recruit new people, book them onto our TryCurling sessions, the new curler advances through the new curler pathway by going to beginner classes then virtual club and within a year, Bob’s your uncle – the club is rewarded for their efforts and has a new member, with no financial cost to the club, just a little effort annually from their members to try and find one person to enrol for a TryCurling class.

Logan’s work is bearing fruit and this year more than three times the number of curlers have come through the TryCurling programme than last.

So, in conclusion, I think we need to have a care.  Our sport – in common with others, let it be said – is going through something of a crisis at grassroots level.  We have a particularly interesting year coming up with the Olympics and we have a chance to use them as a springboard to introduce new curlers to the sport.  Link that with the kind of initiative that Logan is introducing in the Stirling area and we have a chance to grow our sport again.  Our clubs, maybe with a recruitment officer in place, need to get together with their local development officers so that there is a connect between their development activities and active recruitment of new curlers.  Finally, and let this be shouted from the rooftops, every rink should have “come and try” days from February onwards, to build on the interest that two Olympic Gold medals will engender!

No pressure on the Olympians, then!


  1. I was happy to be involved with Logan's Try Curling recently & totally echo your observation that the future of curling is in our own hands. The problem in many ice rinks is getting spare ice (particularly in the evenings) to accommodate these sessions.In addition many municipal ice rinks switch to ice skating at the weekends & for obvious financial reasons are reluctant to sacrifice such income for Try Curling weekend sessions. Sure, there is ice available during the day, but such availability does not suit the many potential "new" curlers out there. So how about a Royal Club levy of say a couple of quid per Member to be used to buy ice at each ice rink for regular recruitment sessions at more amenable times?

  2. It's good to see that people are tackling these issues. I've been in Glasgow for 6 weeks and the differences in club structure between here and the US is fairly stark, and I can see a number of ways in which growth is limited by the way the rinks and clubs arrange themselves. I think you can go further with the Virtual Clubs, and there may be ways to feed those better into some clubs.

    What are some of the ways RCCC is planning for the Olympic onslaught?