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Volume 21 No. 26
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USA Curling aims to slide from niche to bonus

Business growth is measured one eyeball at a time at USA Curling, one of the United States’ smallest Olympic sports governing bodies. But the impressions are gradually adding up.

Late last month, the national governing body secured the most prominent sponsorship deal in its 59-year history: Frito-Lay’s Cheetos brand, which is lending suave spokescat Chester Cheetah to a campaign to teach the game to Americans this winter. The brand is live on-site near the U.S. Curling Olympics trials this week in Omaha, Neb., and Cheetos also hired real-life curling enthusiast Vernon Davis from the NFL’s Washington Redskins to help.

Make no mistake, curling is still a very niche sport. Its membership of 20,500 people is 1/20th the size of USA Swimming, and its entire $2.4 million fiscal 2016 budget is the same amount Nike pays USA Track & Field every seven weeks.

But NBC Sports Network has given curling a seasonlong cable platform with the “Curling Night in America” franchise, now in its fourth year, and curling will again anchor CNBC programming from the Pyeongchang Games this February. Meanwhile, organization revenue is up 88 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to the most recently published financial reports.

NBC plans to air 12 straight days of curling action during the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
With all that already in hand, the Cheetos boost is ushering in a new era of optimism, said CEO Rick Patzke, who’s been with the nonprofit in various roles since 1996.

“I think it will also help open other doors and eyes,” Patzke said. “As I’ve been saying, we’re kind of a diamond in the rough for somebody who really wants to take a chance, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve been able to get that company to stand up and take advantage of that.”

Cheetos is leaning on a pun (cheese curls/curling) for some of its activation, and was pleased to learn the NGB wasn’t taking itself too seriously. “Cheetos is irreverent in nature and we were excited that USA Curling was open to creative ideas to jointly promote the brand and the sport,” said Ryan Matiyow, senior director of marketing for the Doritos and Cheetos brands.

The sport is now firmly entrenched as a mainstay in the NBC Sports portfolio for a variety of reasons. For starters, it fills the role of early-season college basketball on cable: volume. A single curling match takes about two hours to play and there’s curling action every day of the Winter Olympics. But it also has an authentic cult following, one drawn to the game by its easygoing pace, straightforward rules and approachable-seeming athletes.

On Nov. 6, NBC announced 12 straight days of Olympic curling coverage — three hours daily in the early evening East Coast time. NBC Olympics’ modest success with the sport first emerged during the 2010 Vancouver Games, when financial workers discovered curling on CNBC after the trading day ended. It aired more than 200 hours of curling in 2016.

Jim Bell, NBC Olympics president of production and programming, said curling has “delivered a loyal audience that we believe will continue to grow.” Late-night and early morning windows on NBCSN have “averaged more than 100,000 viewers on numerous occasions,” according to a statement.

Translating that increased exposure into sponsorship income has been slow going, Patzke said. He faces a chicken-and-egg growth dilemma that can paralyze small NGBs: How to command top dollar from sponsors while lacking the staff to deliver the content and inventory expected in those deals.

“I am the marketing department,” Patzke said.

But the progress is real, if slower than he likes. From 2008 to 2016, the near-doubling in annual revenue helped boost its net assets from $230,000 to $507,000. U.S. Olympic Committee funding boosts are part of that, but membership dues income is up 72 percent to $577,000, and sponsorship income has more than tripled from $45,000 to $152,000.

Marketing still only makes up about 7 percent of all revenue. (For comparison, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s marketing generated about 31 percent in the same year.) Other than Cheetos, USA Curling’s roster of non-endemics includes Nike (apparel supplier), Cryomax cold packs and the Ram Restaurant & Brewery chain.

“That’s always the tough one for everybody,” Patzke said of expanding the business. He sells it as a positive: “I used to joke, not trying to be mean or anything, that we’re not overburdened with sponsors. We’re a good product for someone who really wants to align with the sport.”

A change to the Olympic program may help USA Curling’s chances of medaling, too. This year, a mixed doubles competition has been added, and the U.S. is a serious contender in that discipline.

On the ice, the American target is at least one medal after getting shut out in Sochi and Vancouver (the men won a bronze in Turin in 2006). The new discipline, mixed doubles, uses teams of just one woman and one man, and also only has eight teams in the tournament, giving the Americans another path to the podium.

For the tiny nonprofit in Stevens Point, Wis., the small victories are worth celebrating, too. That 20,500-strong membership has doubled since the 2002 Salt Lake Games, and there are clubs in every climate in the U.S.

“I don’t really have to explain curling anymore,” Patzke said.