Between the beginning of the 2009 and 2010 curling season, according to the media guides from USA Curling, our beloved sport was played in 4 more states (up to 37) and we added almost 20 more clubs.
The media guide also proudly boasts that Texas has three (!) curling clubs. (Winnipeg, to compare, has 20) And, while it looks like memberships were down, I suspect that the 2011-2012 media guide, when it is released this summer, will show quite a jump in memberships and club numbers.
Yes, it is a sport on the rise in the United States. But how is it growing as quickly as it is? Doesn't a curling club cost a lot of money to build?
I know I have a lot of Canadian readers, and so what I am about to say may shock them. My American readers won't be as surprised, because a number of you live with this every curling season. Almost every new curling club opened in the United States over the past several years has been an arena curling club. What's that mean? It means that the ice is owned by a hockey arena, and the curling club is co-habitating and paying for ice time.... at about $200/hr.
I'll give you a moment to get over your shock. I know that a lot of curling purists are having seizures after reading that. I also know that this would never fly in Canada - I know. I've been told. I'm lucky enough to not have to experience this on a regular basis. But most curling clubs in America are not located in dedicated curling venues, but in hockey rinks.
I haven't done my post on ice as of this writing, but I have done one on brushing. In this article, a made a reference, near the end, on the pebbled ice. Curling ice, in its most optimal state, is pebbled. That is a requirement of the sport. To hold that pebble, the ice has to be prepared carefully, and bi-hourly trips by a Zamboni ain't the way.
And have you noticed that, especially in warm weather, hockey ice gets foggy? I played hockey for several years, and went to summer hockey camps. Those were occasionally difficult, because it was foggy. Now, imagine trying to aim at a broom 142 feet away in a pea-soup fog. Not easy.
Also, the crease is not the house. Period. There are no nets in curling. (And rare checking). Houses and hog lines have to either be painted into the hockey ice, over and over again, or the game has to be dramatically modified - and a measure is, from what I am told, difficult if it is needed. Hacks, the little footholds a curler uses to deliver, are not usually found on a hockey rink (they'd make the puck bounce funny), so these need to be installed.
Arena ice is sub-optimal, to be sure, but a lot of clubs do make it work as best they can. A sister club of my club, the Pittsburgh Curling Club, has been an arena club for several years. They're trying to build a dedicated facility - it will cost them about $1 million - and other clubs, including mine, are helping out with retired icemaking equipment and the like. And they will get their club, in time.
In the meantime, because they are an arena club, they can hold events on arena ice.... anytime it's not being used for hockey, of course. To that end, they host a summer bonspiel, in late June, when ice time is cheaper for the arena club... and the dedicated clubs (except for Cape Cod) are shut down. Their TropiCurl spiel is full now for 2011, but they are accepting waitlisters. The Triangle Curling Club, at Wake Forest, another arena club who have grown quickly, largely on the warmer-weather curling. They have an August bonspiel, which I am seriously considering.
A bit of a note on Triangle. Several of their curlers were in Rochester for a bonspiel this winter, and they gave a respectable showing. Not bad for a club that's only 16 years old and doesn't have access to dedicated ice.
The regional and national organizations dedicated to curling, to their benefit, are quite supportive of arena curling. These clubs frequently use borrowed rocks and ice-making i.e. pebbling/nipping supplies, courtesy of these regional organizations and the USCA. This way, clubs can get up and running quickly, without an investment, and, if interest should wane, no one's out any money or equipment - other clubs can take on the loaner supplies.
There are even arena club curling championships, which are open only to arena curlers. For the time being, that means I cannot go to one of those as a participant.
Is arena curling the best curling experience? No. Are there benefits? Yes. Will the US build more curling clubs thanks to the dedication of those who love the sport so much they're willing to put up with the caveats? Absolutely!