Curling Canada is pushing all-in on a new competition next season that will kick off the Season of Champions schedule and showcase the organization's new partnership with PointsBet Canada.
The inaugural Sept. 21-25 PointsBet Invitational in Fredericton, N.B., will have a March Madness-style single-elimination format with 16-team draws featuring many of Canada's top men's and women's teams.
"Sports is about emotion and there's nothing like that one game, winner-take-all (setup)," said Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada's executive director of curling fan experience and marketing.
With the national and world championships anchoring the back half of the Season of Champions schedule, the hope is that the PointsBet Invitational will provide a strong early-season event that appeals to longtime curling supporters and casual fans alike.
With a purse of over $350,000, all 32 teams will receive $5,000 for travel and accommodation costs. Earnings from there will come with victories: a first-round win is worth $3,000, a quarterfinal victory is $6,000, a semifinal win is $12,000 and a final victory is worth $24,000.
Organizers plan to release the men's and women's draws and seeding information later in the summer. The tentative plan is to include the top 12 Canadian teams on the world curling team ranking system in each gender.
Mirroring the popular U.S. college basketball-style tournament format — with its guaranteed drama since all teams are in must-win mode — should help create some "September Madness" for the Roaring Game.
"I don't watch a lot of college basketball but I do when I fill out my bracket every March," Thiessen said Monday from Edmonton. "I think that's a little bit of what we're hoping for as well here. We can have some bracket challenges out there and (fans can) fill it out.
"Maybe they're willing to tune in and make sure that (Team Brad) Gushue makes the final four. Or if you had (Team Kerri) Einarson in the final and you want to make sure that she got there."
Remaining draw spots will go to the reigning Canadian junior champions (Emily Deschenes, Landan Rooney), Canadian curling club champions (Tracy Larocque, Nick Deagle), host committee selections (Jack Smeltzer, Andrea Kelly) and sponsor's exemption entries.
PointsBet Canada was named the official sports betting partner of Curling Canada last October. A heavy promotional push started last season and Ontario's sports betting market opened to major gaming operators in April.
The competition will also fill a void on the calendar since the Canada Cup will not be played this season and Continental Cup plans have not been finalized.
TSN is the rightsholder for Season of Champions events but broadcast plans have not been finalized. The six-stop Sportsnet-owned Grand Slam of Curling series begins with the Oct. 4-9 Boost National in North Bay, Ont.
Organizers hope this new event, to be held at the 1,500-seat Willie O'Ree Place, will have the feel of a major bonspiel. Organizers plan to set up "The Patch" party barn nearby and have live entertainment throughout the week.
Given that most elite teams made off-season roster changes, it won't be an easy task to predict winners. It should also be fascinating to see how rinks adjust to the unusual must-win pressure right from the opening draw.
Thiessen, who won the national men's championship on three occasions, said the format should get "the juices flowing" right away.
"I don't think Curling Canada has ever put on an event where we said, 'OK once everybody gets there, you're on your last legs immediately,'" he said.
Fredericton was slated to host the 2020 Canada Cup and last season's Continental Cup but both events were cancelled due to the pandemic.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press