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Prior to around 2000, most Curling clubs in the United States followed the traditional Canadian model, operating in private facilities on dedicated ice sheets. When curling was introduced to a wider American audience during the 2002 Winter Olympics, interest in the sport grew dramatically. With the huge and sudden influx of new curlers, many existing curling clubs quickly filled. In addition, there developed strong interest in curling where there had never been before, in seemingly unlikely warm climates such as California, Arizona and Texas.
The intense capital investment needed to buy or build new private ice facilities was a significant obstacle to the development of new curling clubs in the United States. Instead, many fledgling curling clubs have solved this problem by operating in traditional arena ice facilities, renting ice by the hour and sharing ice sheets with skating sports such as hockey and figure skating.
Advantages of Arena Curling
The major advantage of arena curling is the ability to form a new curling club without the burden of buying or building a private ice facility. New curling clubs can rent only the ice time they need, reducing their start up costs and risk. This model also is good for club growth, assuming the hosting ice arena has sufficiently available ice to allow the curling club to buy more ice time as it expands.
Locating in an existing ice center also offers visibility to new curling clubs, since there is often other foot traffic in the building at the same time as curling for skating sports such as hockey and figure skating. Curling clubs playing on arena ice also enjoy the relative security of a fixed costs, without the need to plan for or budget variable costs for building maintenance and utilities.
Challenges of Arena Curling
The major challenge in arena curling is ice quality. Since the ice is shared with skaters and is maintained by large ice resurfacing machines, it can be difficult to maintain a perfectly flat sheet of ice, which is necessary for curling. Additionally, ice temperature is a problem for many arena clubs, especially in warmer climates. Ice that is cold enough for skating might not be cold enough for curling. Colder ice is more expensive for the ice facility to maintain. Curling clubs that develop a close relationship with the ice center staff in their hosting arena have the best success at developing quality curling ice under these settings. This challenge is overcomable with some effort however, as evidenced by the fact that many curling clubs in Scotland (the home of curling) operate on arena ice.
A second major challenge of arena curling is rock storage. Arena clubs must develop a system for storing the 42 lb rocks off ice, while scrupulously protecting the bottom running surface. In large arena clubs of 4 or more sheets, it can take considerable man-power to move rocks on and off the ice before and after each game.
A related challenge of off-ice rock storage is rock temperature. To curl effectively, rocks must be maintained at exactly the same temperature as the ice sheet. Depending on storage location, rocks stored off-ice can warm up considerably between games, and must sit on the ice sometimes for several hours to come back down to the proper temperature. Some ice arenas will allow arena clubs to place their rocks on the ice for cooling in advance of a game at no charge, while other, higher traffic ice arenas will require the curling club to pay for that ice time since the ice cannot be used for skating while the rocks are out. Arena clubs without access to pre-game rock cooling time often solve this problem by purchasing freezers in which to store rocks between games.
Arena clubs are often faced with the challenge of the being the lowest priority group in the eyes of the arena management. Hockey, figure skating, and public skating are almost always given scheduling priority over curling despite the fact that the curlers are paying the same money for an equal amount of ice time. Sometimes, the management of an area might come to the conclusion that curling is more trouble than they bargained for. Curlers often want special markings in the ice, need colder, smoother, and flatter ice than is required for skating, and need storage space for a lot of equipment. This sometimes leads to a falling-out between the curling club and the host arena. There have been instances of long-established arena clubs suddenly becoming “homeless” due to changes in their host arena management or ownership.
Nearly all curling clubs in private ice facilities include an on-site club room for fellowship before and after games, and sharing a drink or a meal with one's opponents is a major part of the history and tradition of the game. This aspect of the game can be difficult for arena clubs to provide, as most ice arenas are publicly owned facilities with policies against the consumption alcohol on premises and without an onsite restaurant.
While ice arenas in many parts of the United States welcome the sport of curling in their facilities as a new revenue stream and have plenty of available ice to offer, some parts of the country (mostly in states bordering Canada) are already operating public ice sheets at near capacity due to the popularity of hockey and figure skating. In these regions, it can be very difficult to secure ice time during the winter months and on weeknights, which are prime times for curling. Many arena clubs find themselves curling at undesirable times of the day, such as Sunday mornings or late at night, or are restricted to curling in the off-seasons of Spring and Summer. Arena clubs in these situations typically view their arena locations as temporary, and transition to a permanent dedicated facility when their membership outgrows the available ice at their arena.