Every time the national curling championships roll around, the competition format becomes a talking point.
Some fans don’t like that the two eight-team groups may prevent traditional round-robin matchups. Others bristle that curling minnows like Nunavut and Yukon are included in the main draw despite significantly weaker talent pools.
Like it or not, the 16-team format appears to be here to stay. And that’s a good thing for at least one main reason: the inclusion of the play-in game for the final Team Wild Card berth.
The sudden-death nature of the winner-moves-on, loser-goes-home matchup has been a hit since its creation in 2018. The play-in format has also been popular in Major League Baseball and NCAA men’s basketball.
The curling play-in game provides immediate drama between two strong teams, one of which usually becomes a contender at the Tim Hortons Brier or Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
In fact, it’s such a riveting concept that perhaps the time has come for Curling Canada to consider expanding the play-in field. March Madness expanded its NCAA men’s basketball play-in schedule in 2011 and MLB has reportedly considered adding wild-card teams.
A similar change might just work for the roaring game.
The current setup pits the top two teams in the Canadian rankings who didn’t win provincial or territorial championships in a Friday night showdown before the main draw starts on the Saturday.
More games, more drama?
So why not work in a few more games earlier on the Friday and ramp up the drama even more? How about sending invites to the next four teams in the ranking pecking order as well?
Instead of just the one evening play-in game, it could be turned into an all-day affair and serve as a beefier appetizer for the main course that follows.
Here’s one idea: seed the play-in teams one through six and give the top two rinks byes.
No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5 on the Friday morning, with winners to take on either No. 1 or No. 2 in the afternoon. The winners from those games would then advance to an evening showdown for the right to be called Team Wild Card.
Main-draw teams usually practise on the Friday, so play-in start times would need to be scheduled accordingly.
Let’s say 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. matchups with the main practice session in the late afternoon/early evening ahead of the final play-in game at 8 p.m. If needed, early play-in games could be trimmed to eight ends from the usual 10 to save some time at minimal sacrifice.
A possibility for a three-game day does exist, but everyone gets to sleep in on the Saturday morning since the opening draw has an afternoon timeslot.
Television coverage on play-in day would become an all-day affair and the host venue could get a full day’s gate at the box office.
Take a look at this year’s Scotties in Moose Jaw, Sask. Third-ranked Jennifer Jones became Team Wild Card with her victory over top-ranked Tracy Fleury.
A six-team play-in pool would have had Fleury and Jones as the top two seeds. Joining them would be sixth-ranked Kelsey Rocque (Alberta), 10th-ranked Beth Peterson (Manitoba), 11th-ranked Jestyn Murphy (Ontario) and 12th-ranked Sherry Anderson (Saskatchewan).
More provinces would have a chance at representation in the main draw and for at least one day, there would be another Saskatchewan rink for fans at Mosaic Place to cheer for.
That would get more behinds in seats and more eyeballs on the tube.
A hypothetical Tim Hortons Brier play-in draw would also offer some intriguing matchups.
Under the six-team scenario, No. 4 Mike McEwen (Manitoba) and No. 9 Glenn Howard (Ontario), who square off in Friday’s wild-card game, would get the top two spots. Also in would be No. 10 Tanner Horgan (Manitoba), No. 11 Scott McDonald (Ontario), No. 12 Braden Calvert (Manitoba) and No. 13 Kirk Muyres (Saskatchewan).
The Kingston-based McDonald team would be a big hit at the Leon’s Centre. And as with the women’s draw, there would be no easy outs since all teams — in this season, anyway — are seeded no lower than 13th in the national rankings.
High-quality curling would be a good bet. Tension would be high for every game with the win-and-you’re-in stakes.
There are a few cons to such a plan, of course.
More teams would have to travel to the host city for just one day of action. Venue operations would need to be up and running earlier on play-in day and an already busy championship schedule would get even longer for one team.
But those would be small prices to pay for an even better national championship.