Every four years, a sport sometimes called “chess on ice” swoops onto television sets and into internet feeds. For a few days, stones and brooms captivate audiences. Viewers see the sweeping and the shouting and think, “Hey, I can do that.” Now U.S. proponents of curling are working to build a nationwide following that lasts beyond the Olympic games.
Curling is a 500-year-old Scottish sport related to shuffleboard. Today, it is popular in Canada, Scandinavia . . . and hardly anywhere else. Players slide 42-pound rocks over a sheet of ice toward a target. Other players “sweep” the ice to minimize friction. They want the rock to glide smoothly and avoid “curling” or curving its path.
Gordon Maclean, chair of the U.S. Curling Association’s college committee, notes that strategy is as important as skill in throwing rocks. “It’s kind of a geek sport,” he says.
Americans are curling newbies. Sure, some kids in Minnesota and Wisconsin grow up sliding rocks—much like Texans play football or Californians surf. But elsewhere, curling is an Olympics-only sport.
Curling has had a U.S. college championship since at least the 1990s. But early tournaments drew few teams. Basically, anyone willing to make the trip could compete. It was a stretch to declare the winner a “national champion.”
“There’s no other sport where you say ‘sign up and go to the championships,’” Maclean claims.
Unlike the more hyped NCAA tournaments (we’re looking at you, Final Four), there are no sponsors or scholarships for curling champions—let alone a path to turn professional.
But last year, USA Curling brought home the first-ever American gold medal from the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The attention on the sport worked. “We’re not losing players,” says Maclean. “We’re gaining players.”
From three or four curling events the first year, the tournament system grew to 15 last year. In all, 370 students from 35 schools—men and women, graduate student and undergrad, all competing together—participated in authorized events this past season.
Curling’s boosters are hoping for more than the usual brief bump in popularity. “It’d be great if it continues to go that direction,” says Tyler George, a member of the Olympic championship curling team. He works to promote the sport on the college level.
For now, there are no varsity curling teams in the country. There are no scholarships, staff coaches, or school-owned facilities. But George isn’t deterred. “Baby steps,” he says.