Sale of Grand Slam of Curling tour won’t impact October stop at UPEI

By Bill McGuire
Public Relations Chair
Cornwall Curling Club
(with files from the Canadian Press, CBC, GSOC)

Prince Edward Island curling fans can breathe easier.

Seismic changes might be coming to the Grand Slam of Curling, and to the sport itself, but the tour’s opening stop this fall on PEI will go ahead as planned.

The Curling Group, a new sports business venture group backed by elite international curlers including Jennifer Jones and John Morris, is looking to invest in growing the sport.

The Curling Group members, left to right, John Morris, Mike Cotton, Nic Sulsky, and Jennifer Jones. (Photo by Anil Mungal/GSOC)

TCG announced an agreement with Rogers Sportsnet on Tuesday, April 9 to acquire the series from the host tv broadcaster following the conclusion of the Princess Auto Players’ Championship, the final stop on the GSOC tour this season.

The 2024-2025 Grand Slam of Curling season will proceed as planned, with five events featuring the top men’s and women’s teams from around the world. 

The Bell Aliant Centre on the campus of the University of Prince Edward Island, plays host to the opening stop on the 2024-2025 season with the Hearing Life Tour Challenge, Oct. 1-6. It is the largest stop on tour with 64 teams in two tiers coming to the Island.

Tier 1 features the top 16 women’s and top 16 men’s teams in the world, while Tier 2 will feature teams ranked 17-32 in both divisions. Tier 1 will compete at the 1,200 seat MacLauchlan Arena while Tier 2 will play in the smaller adjacent arena.

Hundreds of week-long passes have already been sold for the Hearing Life, and playoff weekend passes went on sale April 14. The event was widely publicized by Sportsnet during the Players Championship.

Robbie Doherty of Charlottetown, is working with Sportsnet in promotions and as an announcer, and says the sale offers exciting possibilities. “The Curling Group has massive plans.”

More than 250 elite curlers on the Hearing Life teams are expected to arrive in the province the last week of September. Visiting teams are booked into hotels along Capital Drive.

Jones, who retired from four-person team play after the Players’ Championship, is involved with The Curling Group as a strategic advisor. She, and teammate Lauren Lenentine, a graduate of the Cornwall Curling Club, were in Charlottetown for a press conference February 29 to announce the GSOC tour stop coming to PEI, just days after losing the national Scotties final to Rachel Homan.

Jones is still expected to compete in mixed doubles events with her husband Brent Laing.

Nic Sulsky, CEO of The Curling Group, believes the potential for the Tour and curling is limitless. “It’s got a legacy, it’s got a tradition, it’s got a history that you can’t replicate,”  Sulsky said of the series during press interviews following the announcement April 9.

“The opportunity to bring the Grand Slam of Curling to the next level, the opportunity to revitalize and bring some elements of re-branding into it, the opportunity to inject a new level of energy — not only into the events themselves but, call it, the ‘shoulder content’ that surrounds all the events — was an opportunity and is an opportunity that myself and my partners are not taking lightly. 

“At the end of the day, being able to build the next stage into the evolution of the sport of curling, using the history and the tradition of the Grand Slams is something that you can’t just put a dollar amount on.”

Sulsky is no stranger to the sport, having been involved with curling as Chief Commercial Officer of PointsBet Canada, which sponsored Brendan Bottcher’s and Kerri Einarson’s teams, and is an exclusive partner with Curling Canada. The online sportsbook has also served the title sponsor of the PointsBet Invitational winner-take-all bracket tournament.

Taking the sport to the next level is something Sulsky says he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about for a number of years. He began conversations with Sportsnet last summer about acquiring the Grand Slam of Curling. The company’s VP of Production, Rob Corte, said Sportsnet wasn’t looking to sell the series, “but the more we talked, the more it made sense.”

“It kind of happened relatively quickly, and it’s a situation where the deal is great for both sides,” said Corte. “From a Sportsnet perspective, we still retain the exclusive Canadian broadcast rights long-term, and that was extremely important for us. On Nic’s side, his incredible vision for what this world could be for the Grand Slam of Curling got us totally psyched and we quickly made this thing happen.”

The ownership group for the new venture also includes sports, media and entertainment industry veteran Mike Cotton, and former NFL defensive end Jared Allen.

Sulsky has been good friends with Cotton for many years and got to know Morris when PointsBet sponsored Kevin Koe’s team in 2022. After Morris retired from men’s curling, Sulsky reached out to see if he was interested in continuing their business partnership. 

“It’s hard not to like and love John Morris,” Sulsky said. “I’ve gotten the great privilege of walking into lots of sporting events and things like that with athletes, with other celebrities, but I’ve never experienced anything in my life that can compare to walking into a curling venue or a curling event with John Morris. It’s like walking into a concert with one of the Beatles. It’s really quite incredible.”

Sulsky says Allen was one of his favourite NFL players, and the wheels started turning when he found out the five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro selection was now competing on the curling tour and looking to make the U.S. Olympic team. “I loved his personality and got introduced to Jared,” Sulsky said.

Getting Jones on board was integral, said Sulsky. “Being able to work with and pick the brain of one of the most legendary curlers in the sport not only allows us an insight that, candidly, I don’t have and hopefully provides a level of integrity and trust in us not only for the curlers but for the curling community that we are doing this for the right reasons,” Sulsky said.

“The growth of women’s curling has been incredible and, let’s face it, the growth of women’s sports now all over the world has been one of the hottest topics in the sports industry, and I don’t think there’s anything different there with the sport of curling.” 

Sportsnet has owned and operated the Grand Slam of Curling since 2012. Over the years, the series expanded to include men’s and women’s tournaments at all of its events and increased the total purse to allow it to be equally split between both divisions, something Corte says he’s most proud of under his watch, alongside the series relationship with its athletes.

“The curlers have been first and foremost in every decision we’ve made,” Corte said. “They’ve always been involved because the goal for us was to grow the sport and to grow the Grand Slam of Curling. That’s one thing that we’re excited about with what The Curling Group has put together. They have a really strong advisory group. By having the world’s best curlers leading the way, there’s no way this can fail.” 

Sulsky is keen to support the continued growth of women’s curling, citing Homan’s unprecedented season winning Canadian and world championships, two Grand Slams and sporting an unbelievable record. 

“I can’t remember a curling team having the type of year she’s been having — and not only her but Emma [Miskew], Sarah [Wilkes] and Tracy [Fleury],” he said. “The year they’re having is incredible and it should be celebrated.”

Corte admitted holding an international tournament is one of the things he wishes he could have achieved, especially since the series was set to stage an event in Las Vegas in January 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to those plans, but he’s hoping it’s something The Curling Group will pursue. 

“We were starting to gain momentum. The Grand Slam of Curling this year is having a fantastic year,” Corte said. “Our audience numbers are up significantly. For example, the 18-34 demographic is up 44 per cent on broadcast. The total audiences are up 16 per cent versus last year. Our momentum is there, but cracking the international market is something that has been challenging and it’s something I will look back on as a little bit disappointing because we were so close but, unfortunately, COVID just kind of stalled it. I’m very confident with The Curling Group and Nic’s leadership that that’s going to be accomplished.”

Since 2012, Sportsnet has been the owner and operator of the Slams. Upward of $2 million in prize money has been up for grabs each season, with pay equity has been at the heart of the tour events since its early days. Its also been a place where new rules have taken form, including the five-rock free guard zone as well as a no-tick rule.

Although Sulsky isn’t willing to publicly divulge the specifics of any changes he hopes to implement until he’s had a chance to first discuss them with the curlers, it appears he’s aiming to make a monumental impact on the sport. Sulsky believes traditionalism has stunted the evolution of curling and admitted some of the changes he has in mind may ruffle the feathers of some long-time fans.

“The question that a lot of those more historic curling fans are going to need to ask themselves is whether they want to see the sport they love jump onto a truly global, exciting stage alongside some of the other incredible sports that are evolving, growing, embracing all of the new technologies and innovations that have been developed over the last decade,” Sulsky said.

“Because that is exactly what we’re going to do. We’re doing this from a place of love for the sport of curling, but also from a place and a need to grow the sport — not only for the business part of the sport but for the curlers themselves.” 

Sulsky also plans to hold court with other stakeholders, such as national and international governing bodies, to get them to recognize his goals.

“A rising tide lifts all boats. … The reality is we are planning on injecting money, energy and vision into this incredible sport. It’s going take years and years to get to the place I think this sport can get to and I am very excited to partner and collaborate with all of the international organizations, brands, sponsors, curlers and fans from all over the world to help us achieve that goal.”

Jones said, ”We want the growth of the game to be so successful. I think the curlers are going to embrace this and be very excited about the opportunities. Our sport has so much potential and it’s just so exciting to be a part of this and hopefully we can have a great impact.”

Sulsky said the athlete’s voice is going to be a critical piece in how they shape the Slams moving forward, that’s why curling legends like Morris and Jones have been brought in from the beginning. 

“We need to provide a platform for curlers to take their position alongside the rest of the international sporting elite because they belong there. They are an incredible, engaging, fun, funny group of folks. It’s about time the spotlight shines on them,” Sulsky said. 

“We are going to blow up the roaring game all around the world, and I could not be more excited to start on this journey alongside literally the two biggest legends that the sport has ever had.”

Morris said for as much change will be coming in the future, it’ll be important to also stay true to many of the traditional aspects of the sport that draws fans to the game.

“It’s not like we’re going to do a complete facelift on the Grand Slams because they’ve been a really big tradition and part of this game for many curlers around the world as a platform to get better, develop their skills and become the best in the world,” Morris said.

Post last modified: Apr 19, 2024 @ 10:06 am

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