LAS VEGAS — Curling has arrived in the land of gambling, showgirls and mega-buffets.
The World Financial Group Continental Cup is being held this week at the 5,000-seat Orleans Arena, just a few blocks away from the casinos, bright lights and showrooms on the famous Las Vegas Strip. Now in its 10th year, the four-day event features six teams from North America facing off against six World teams.
Veteran skip Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg, who is using the event as a tune-up for next month’s Sochi Olympics, has curled all over the world. But she says Vegas has been a unique experience.
“You get piped through a casino, who gets bag-piped through a casino?” she said. “I think it’s great for curling to have it in such a big city like Las Vegas and any exposure we can get is fantastic.”
While taking curling to the desert may seem like a gamble — last year’s event was held in Penticton, B.C. — ticket sales have been brisk, according to organizing committee co-chair Anne Warner Cribbs. More than 3,400 all-event passes have been sold, with Canadian fans picking up about 80 per cent of those tickets.
“Obviously, we’re delighted with ticket sales and delighted with the Canadian fans who have come down to the desert in the heart of a really bad winter,” Cribbs said in an interview this week. “I think it’s great for curling as a sport and it’s great for curling in the U.S.”
With many Canadian fans in attendance, the U.S. organizers have adopted a Canadian tradition. A ballroom in the host hotel has been converted into the “Las Vegas Patch.” The social room, known at the Canadian men’s championship as the Brier Patch, features refreshments, live entertainment and games. After the first evening of competition wrapped up Thursday, the Patch was at capacity.
Linda Dziver of Thunder Bay, Ont., who has been in Vegas since last week, incorporated the tournament into a vacation.
“I love it,” said Dziver. “We’ve done some shopping and golfing and now we’re here focusing on the curling.”
Sporting a red and white Canada fan hat, Roberta Cuzzocrea of Courtenay, B.C. said “the venue is awesome and the games are just terrific.”
Mark Nicols, who won Olympic gold for Canada in 2006, said he never imagined curling would make it to a place like Vegas.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “People are cheering and you’re interacting with people.”
“People in the United States are very interested in curling every four years when curling really becomes everybody’s second favourite winter sport,” said Cribbs, an Olympic gold medallist in swimming. “You may love downhill skiing or ice hockey but your favourite second sport is curling.”
She said the sport’s popularity has grown in the U.S. since the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Games, especially among young professionals in their 20s and 30s who are “interested in the nuances of curling,” said Cribbs.
“The crowds here are great and it’s great training for us heading into Sochi,” said American Debbie McCormick. “It is just so much fun playing in this atmosphere.”
Nine of the 12 teams competing in Vegas will play in Sochi where McCormick’s will make her fourth Olympic appearance.
“We’re going to take full advantage of (the Continental Cup) and work really hard and play our best and learn from everything,” she said.
In addition to the pre-Sochi competition, there is some cash on the line for the curlers this weekend. The winning side receives $52,000 while the losing side gets $26,000.
As well, the side which generates the highest points total from the six Skins games will receive an additional $13,000.