Professional Curler-The Sports True April Fool’s Joke

So with one World Championship complete, another about to start and one more Slam or so left before the season finally closes, it’s time to pop the balloon on Curling’s biggest April Fool joke.

Professionalism.

You’ve likely heard and read that term a lot in the past months. Well, I’m here to tell you the bad news.

There ain’t no such thing as Professional Curling.

Not that there shouldn’t be. Striving for true professionalism is a worthy goal for the sport. But what is being passed off today, in the media and from some curlers (who have a vested interest), isn’t professionalism by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it does a grave disservice to the meaning and intent of the word.

But first you need to understand what professionalism in sport really entails.

Let’s start with a valid comparison. Although we are a team sport, curling has little in common with others when it comes to getting paid. Those athletes are on individual contracts and get paid no matter the outcome of a competitive season. Curling, as we all know, doesn’t do this.

Instead, we are structured along the lines of non-team (or solo athlete) sports. In short, you are paid based on your performance in each stand alone event. In this respect we are have more in common with; golf, tennis, bowling and hell, darts, than we do with the NHL, NFL, MLB and all those other 3 initial sports.

Not that this is a bad thing. Those structures work very well and there are many athletes in solo sports who make excellent livings. And therein lies, to me anyways, the true essence of what it means to be a professional curler-or athlete in any sport:

You make your entire living from your efforts on the playing field.

Now that income arrives in two forms. First, and obvious, the money you get purely from playing your sport. Either a contacted salary with a team or performance based prize money. As we know, curling is straight prize money.

The second source of income is secondary outside monies derived as a result of performance. This refers to commercial endorsements, government funding, sponsorships or employment directly associated with the sport (think club golf pro here or say, coaching another country for cash). This is the icing on the cake for the successful pro and it can carry on long after your playing days on are over.

And there is no finer example than the man who wrote the book on this; The King, Mr. Arnold Palmer.

It can be truthfully argued that other athletes made secondary income off their endeavors before Arnie. But no one hit the ball out of the park like he and his agent Mark McCormick did. Every athlete hawking a shoe, skate, glove or frozen chicken wing, owes them big time.

And all of this stuff is good, IMO. And, IMO, this is where curling needs to end up. But right now folks, we aren’t even close enough to be laughingly called semi-pro.

But wait, you say, we have these wonderful big events on TV where there’s lots of money up for grabs and there’s teams who do nothing but dedicate their time to curling in these events and others on the tour. Obviously they must be professionals.

Sorry, needed a moment to wipe up the coffee I spat up when I burst out laughing.

When the media spoon feeds you this kind of pap every weekend on the Glass Teat it’s easy to succumb. But have you, dear reader and spectator, ever taken a moment to sit down with a calculator and work out the real world math involved in curling competitively? If you did, it would take you about 5 minutes to realize just how far we are from being a professional sport.

Let me start with just the prize money alone. And I’ll pick on the Slams as well. Let’s say you just won the latest Slam and your first place cheque was $25,000.00. Sounds impressive, right? Now divide that by 4 (presuming you don’t carry extra personnel like a 5th and a coach-who all deserve a cut) which comes out to: $6,250/player.

That still sounds impressive but now factor in your costs. Because as a true professional athlete you pay your own way.  As you read in my posts about the Cranbrook Slam last November, these things are pretty much a week-long event for teams. Now obviously it differs from team to team, but generally speaking if you’re there for the duration of an entire week you can count on laying out at least $1,500/player for your costs (and that’s if you go cheap and it’s super optimistic on my part).

But, you say, that still leaves me with $4,750.00 for my efforts. That’s a decent return, right? Sure. If you did that every 2nd week for the duration of a curling season that would mean you made (13 weeks x $4,750) $61,750.00 each. All of which is currently tax-free and after costs. Probably more than the average Canadian makes in a year right? That’s sure not chump change is it?

No, it’s not. But let’s get real for just a second. The previous scenario is based on your team pulling off 13 straight weeks of wins. Hardly a realistic way to view things.

As of March 28th, the top money winning team this season-per the WCT website-is Sweden’s Nikolas Edin with $141,469.00 or, $35,367.25/player. Closest domestic team is Brad Gushue in 2nd place with $116.395.00 or $29,098.75/man.

At face value both those amounts look good don’t they? Well, as you know by now I love to rip down false facades so consider the following:

First, none of those numbers take into account the costs incurred to earn them. Granted, both Gushue and Edin receive massive government funding (more on that another time) and have corporate sponsorships rumored to be in the 6 figure range, so it’s pretty likely that this is all gravy for both teams.

But they are the exception, not the general state of the majority of competitive curlers. So just pretend for a mere moment that they did this out of pocket to that $1,500/player/event tune I whistled a few paragraphs back. You can now slice $19,500 off each teammates take home pay.

Did I just hear a few astonished whistles from the crowd? If you found that interesting, read on.

Second, and here’s the real eye-opener (and another reason why you should: PAY ATTENTION TO HISTORY GODDAMMIT! Sorry, thought the Caps Lock was needed to wake you up.), the kind of prize money Edin and Gushue have racked up this year, while impressive, hasn’t changed much in over 30 years. In fact, when you adjust for inflation, there’s a valid argument that it’s even declined from the 1980’s.

Proof, you say? Gladly, and God I love how history makes people go cross-eyed.

In the spring of 1987 Ed Lukowich’s team won the first ever Olympic Curling Trials to represent Canada at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. To prepare for Calgary they gave up their jobs, focused on playing in every cashspiel they could, went on a cross Canada tear and amassed (if memory serves) over $120,000.00 in winnings.

This was before the WCT was even an Arnold Asham pipe dream. There were no Slams, Canada Cups or World Curling Tour. Just a very healthy and vibrant series of independent events, playing every weekend, scattered across the country. It was referred to, unofficially, as Curling’s Gold Trail.

While Lukowich set a record for the time, they weren’t the first team to have an excellent cash season. A few years prior, Paul Gowsell and his merry band of misfits earned just over $100,000 for a season’s efforts (Can you name the link between Gowsell and Lukowich? five Pinty’s wing emoji’s if you guessed Neil Houston). In fact, if you look back you’ll see that not much changes over the years in money winnings. The top teams win 3-4 events and accumulate prize money in the $80,000-100,000 range with the odd team or two exceeding the $100,000 plateau.

So how does Ed Lukowich trump Nikolas Edin? If you adjust Lukowich’s team winnings into 2017 dollars they might not hold the record for most dollars earned, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

A quick check on line with various Canadian and US financial institutions shows the inflation rate for the 1987 dollar anywhere from 2.11 to 2.18. The median is roughly 2.14 so that’s what we’ll use.

Apply that rate to Lukowich’s $120,000 and it has a real value today of $256,800.00 or $64,200/man. Probably not enough to support a family (you still need to take costs into consideration) but a single person could probably make a go of it.

The point I’m making is this: if the top dollars for winning an event haven’t really changed in over 30 years, then neither have the bottom dollars for just making it to the money round. And it’s those bottom dollars we really need to be worried about.

Why? because you have to first be able to make a living from the playing field. Sponsorships, commercials endorsements, play-by-play announcing, etc., all come afterwards-but only as a result of success. And that means winning or finishing at least top 4 on a regular basis. So until you begin to post those finishes consistently you need to be able to survive and that means Qualifying Money. And QM needs to be at a level where teams can survive on it.

The average WCT, non-Slam cashspiel pays between $10,000-15,000.00 for first place and qualifies less than half the field, usually 8 teams out of a 24-32 team field. So while 16-24 teams take home hotel bills and hangovers, only those 8 pay some of the bills. And it’s the teams who finish 5-8th that we focus on because they get the least amount of the pot, averaging between $2,000-3,000.00 for those finishes-or what we call; Qualifying Money.

Consider an alternative comparison; Qualifying Money is the same as what the poor sap gets for making the cut, but finishing dead last, at a PGA tour event. The difference? Dead last at a PGA event usually covers your costs and then some. At worst you break even. When a team makes $2,000-4000.00 for a week’s work at a Slam they’re still in the red. The same translates to a non-Slam event as well.

So here we are, playing for roughly the same amount of money that we battled for 30 years ago. Which would be fine if all our costs were still at 1987 prices. Last I checked gas was at $1.09/liter though, not .20/liter,  hotel rooms weren’t $30/night and don’t even bring up the price of beer or airfare.

Now you know why I break out laughing every time I hear the term ‘Professional Curler’. I can barely give credence to applying ‘Semi-Pro’ to our competitive side of the sport.

Why so cynical? Look, I want there to be real professional curling and I believe that it can be done. But if history shows us anything, the path we’re on right now will not take us there. If anything it is doing more harm than good to the competitive side of the sport.

Take heart though, there are true professionals in curling. They’re just not full-time curlers. Who are they? Your club manager and ice-maker are about the only people who can truly be considered curling professionals. (Although I guess there is an argument for all those bureaucrats who’ve forged little kingdoms in the various head offices of the governing bodies. But I digress.)

So on April 1st, if you happen to be at your club with some friends, tell them you have a new career; Professional Curler. Quickly add ‘April Fools!’ of course.

Good joke, roll on snare and cymbal.

 

 

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