Monday, 9 May 2016
The Brass Tax of the Sweeping Summit
This month the World Curling federation will be conducting the first ever Sweeping Summit to attempt to solve the "broom gate" issues that hung over the past curling season. It isn't an overstatement to say that the 2015-2016 season will always be known as the broom gate year, this type of thing happens when your sport gets unforeseen exposure in places such as the Washington Post, NY Times and Steven Colbert's late night show.
Here's what I hope happens during the summit; for all the testing that will be performed on various fabrics and inserts, I hope we get down to the brass tax and answer the question "what do we want sweeping to do in our game?" The WCF recently issued an online survey that asks for input on that very question. I think it is a very important survey as the principle of what sweeping in curling should be is what needs to be answered before the broom head construction or sweeping technique questions can be solved.
The one argument that I don't love has always been "well let's just go back to what sweeping has always been". To me that could be a final solution, I don't know for sure, but just asking to go back in time in and of itself is not a complete argument. Sure an issue is identified, but why is the old way better? The curling public have identified the "what" but have skipped the "so what" and went directly to the "now what". The game has advanced substantially in the past from corn brooms to rink rats to push brooms etc. We have found better ways. Simply saying "put it back to the old way because I liked it better" doesn't hold weight with me. Why did this season happen and is it wrong? Let's have the discussion about why terms like "carving" are potentially bad and something we may want out of the game. Let's see if we can achieve something more than just going back to the old because that's what we know and are comfortable with? Form complete arguments with backup and find solutions so we don't have the bickering that happened this year.
For me a cause and effect of technology advancements that I understand and am concerned with is the lack of misses and therefore lack of offence. Misses in curling happen and to be honest they make the game more entertaining. Sure nobody wants to watch a game played by two teams firing (or misfiring) percentages in the 30s. A timely miss that occurs due to a communication error or a mental let down make for an entertaining product for fans to watch and players to play. Allowing technology to make up for those mental or physical misfires means those missed shots, particularly hits, are going to be few and far between. Teams just scratched the surface of their knowledge of what we could do out there this season, another year with too much in the sweepers hands is going to snowball the game more and more into a situation where nobody can miss a hit from board weight or less. If that's the case then why draw? Curling is chess on ice but there is a physicality to moving the chess pieces and they don't end up in the ideal placement every time. There is a happy marriage between the physical and mental struggle of shotmaking. That is what makes curling so special, misses happen and the strategy is fluid because of it. Removing the physicality and making it strictly chess is a step in the wrong direction. I have yet to see TV ratings for chess approach a million viewers.
I recently played in a Brier where a draw behind a guard was not a good shot anymore. If your guard was too close to the house a run back where at minimum contact was made with your draw. If your guard was left a little long, well a simple hack weight hit was also made 9 times out of ten.
Average shooting percentage for top 4 players at each position during last two Briers:
Skip - 2015 84.0%; 2016 89.8%
Third - 2015 90.0%; 2016 91.3%
Second - 2015 89.0%; 2016 91.3%
Lead - 2015 92.0%; 2016 93.3%
Total - 2015 88.8%; 2016 91.4%
Are we sure that the playoff teams at the Brier got 2.6% better in one season? That is the biggest jump in percentages that I have ever seen year over year in my time in the Brier.
Offensively the games were often played in the 5-4 range. There was a game that was 2-1 entering the tenth end, this happened even with both teams throwing guards attempting to generate offence. Creating offence was hard to come by, and like any sport with TV commitments to fulfill and the money that comes from that, offence is needed. If you can't miss a hit whether it be a run back or come around takeout .. how do you get rocks in play? Fans love the discussion and strategy of the elite teams, they love thinking along with the best in the world as they navigate their way through an end or game, how much thinking and discussion goes into our game when there is one guard and both teams are playing the hit and roll game with one rock in the house?
To me here is the bare bones issue that technology has brought to the forefront this year .. margin for error. The elite players of this game (weird to think I am no longer part of that crew but I will still use the term "we" often when I talk of the elite) are supremely talented who work extremely hard at the craft of shotmaking. They put in countless hours of work at their home clubs and gyms throughout the world to find ways to get an extra inch or less out there on the ice, so they shouldn't need a bigger margin for error. Baseball never allowed the aluminum bat at the professional level even though aluminum has a larger sweet spot and lower cost to all players and teams. Professionals don't need that margin for error. Should curling's elite not be the same?
The players have shown this year that we can use technology to move our margin for error to unforeseen levels, the jump this year was significant and will only increase. As someone who loves this game, that is the main effect that we need to control. Curlers in 2016 don't need that much of a margin for error, but anyone competing for titles in our sport will use it if it's allowed. Let's make sure the margins are small and these athletes are fighting for inches and centimetres not feet.
To me that is the overriding theme of the sweeping summit. Let's not forget to see the forest from the trees. What do we want sweeping in curling to be? How do we ensure that sweeping doesn't become so effective that offence is too hard to come by? Those questions need to be answered first. Getting to the bottom of the effectiveness of broom construction and techniques will be an extremely valuable exercise, however I for one am hopeful we don't get lost in the minutia of construction and techniques before we ask the truly important questions.
I think we will. I think we will start at square one and work out from there because without doing that we are doing an injustice to our sport. What happens at the Summit will lead the game into a new era of "AB" .. After Broomgate. Sure we're not curing disease but we are going to try to solve something that will define our sport. To me that's an important task.