PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – Not all curlers at the women’s world championship are thrilled about experimenting with a new rule. Other changes to the game to make it more viewer-friendly are afoot.
The World Curling Federation’s test of a “no-tick” rule at this week’s women’s championship in Prince George, B.C., and next month’s men’s world championship in Las Vegas is to see if it makes curling less predictable, and thus keeps eyeballs on a 10-end game for its duration.
The tick shot as a strategy emerged from the free-guard zone. Stones in front of the rings, or guards, can’t be removed from play until five rocks are thrown.
A well-executed tick shot pushes those guards to the wings, but keeps them in play while opening up access to the house.
But a guard on the centre line in Prince George can’t be touched until five rocks are delivered, which injects new wrinkles into strategy.
2018 Olympic champion Anna Hasselborg of Sweden isn’t against a “no-tick” trial, but says a world championship isn’t the laboratory for it.
“It’s a total lack of the respect of the players to try a no-tick,” the Swedish skip declared. “It’s such a big rule change at the world championships. I think it’s very, very wrong.”
Canadians were more diplomatic with third Val Sweeting calling it an “interesting event choice” for the trial.
“It’s definitely a challenge having a new rule in place for something like the world championships, where we obviously want to succeed,” second Shannon Birchard said.
Skip Kerri Einarson feels her team is adjusting to the no-tick, but also questioned whether a world championship was the place to workshop it.
“I would say not at worlds, you don’t test something like that,” she said.
Men’s and women’s teams tried the no-tick in a pair of Grand Slams last year. World Curling Tour events often try out rule changes and have featured eight-end games for years.
The no-tick is one of three changes the WCF is contemplating for competitive, viewership and commercial reasons.
The other two are no extra ends in the round robin, but a draw-the-button to determine the winner, as well as altering thinking time from a team’s 38 minutes per game to four minutes per end for the first five ends and four minutes 15 seconds for the remaining ends.
The WCF wants to determine in Prince George and Las Vegas if the no-tick reduces blank ends, allows for more comebacks, and decreases the predictability of the team with hammer scoring.
The tick shot played midway through a game to defend a lead can make the game “become fairly predictable in terms of what the outcome’s going to be and it gets more so towards the end,” said Graham Prouse, the WCF’s vice-president of Americas.
“What we’re seeing, going back to data that we’ve pulled from world championships and Europeans and so on back to 2017 when we started to play with the five-rock rule, is that the chances of a team winning with the hammer in a tied game coming home, or in an extra end, are approaching 90 per cent.
“The level of predictability is really high, which is a concern for spectators and fans tuning out, quite frankly. If it becomes obvious who is going to win, are they hanging around to watch the conclusion of the game?”
Two-time world champion Silvana Tirinzoni sees both sides of the no-tick equation.
“It’s an advantage for the team who is behind. That’s probably the part I don’t like so much when you’re ahead,” the Swiss skip said. “I understand why they want to have this rule change. It’s more exciting for a spectator.”
An international survey conducted during last year’s curling bubble in Calgary indicated viewers don’t love blank ends, Prouse said.
“We’re trying to grow the game globally so that’s an important factor for us,” he said. “The idea with the no-tick rule is it makes it more challenging to blank an end, especially in the middle of a game.
“We’re trying to address the blank ends and the comeback potential with this rule as well.”
A 10-end curling game isn’t made for short attention spans, and the debate over whether to shorten championship games to eight ends has entered its third decade.
The financial argument is a 10-end game gives sponsors 20 per cent more bang for their buck than eight.
Game length is the rationale, however, behind no extra ends in the preliminary round, but a draw-the-button like a shootout in hockey to determine the winner. And like hockey, a shootout loss would be reflected in the standings.
“I hate it,” Einarson said. “That takes away from curling. We’ve played with extra ends forever. Why take that away and you can lose a game on a draw to the button? That’s terrible.”
The WCF tested the thinking-time modification at a World Cup in 2019.
“The way the thinking time is spread out today, you can have a couple of long, really interesting ends and then suddenly both teams play a couple nudge-nudge, wink-wink blank ends where both teams realize it’s in their interests to play through quickly,” Prouse explained. “That’s problematic because it’s uninteresting.
“Not everybody was crazy about it, but the feedback actually tended a bit positive. Part of the reason for that was teams weren’t able to bank a bunch of time and then slow down at the end. You had a much more consistent pace of play.
“With that, it makes it easier for us to go to new broadcasters with our product if we’re trying to get our product on broadcasts around the world.”
Hasselborg prefers to deploy the current 38 minutes per game as she wishes instead of being locked into four minutes or 4:15 per end.
“It doesn’t make sense for anyone to not be able to bank their time,” she said. “I think we will see slower ends when you don’t need slower ends.
“Four minutes per end is literally no speaking at all. Probably 80 per cent of our ends are over four minutes and then we bank a lot of time in ends we don’t need it.”
The suite of proposed changes came out of a WCF international group of athletes’ commission, member association, broadcast and competition people in 2019, Prouse said.
“We brought that group together with the idea of looking at the game from the standpoint of what can we do to maximize the value of the sport?” he said. “How can we attract more people to watch?”
The COVID-19 pandemic wiping out several curling events over the last two years reduced chances to test changes, but the WCF opted not to try all three at once in Prince George.
“We landed on three rules we thought would be important to the game whether it was eight or 10 ends,” he said. “We thought bringing all three of these together at the same time might be a challenge at a world championship and second, it might confuse the data.”