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Sat, February 18, 2006

Curling is making waves

Millions of Italians flocking to TV sets to watch game similar to bocce

By TERRY JONES, TEAM SUN

PINEROLO, Italy -- Italy is going crazy for Eskimo lawn bowling.

Except here it's more that they're going nuts for Inuit bocce ball.

Five million Italians, it has been reported, watched curling on live television the other day. It was the top-drawing Olympic sport of the entire day on home country TV.

"We have 200 curlers in Italy and they're telling us we have five million people watching curling on TV,'' said Rodger Schmidt, the Canadian who took on the impossible task four-and-a-half years ago of creating competitive Italian host teams for the Olympics when he became their coach.

"What's maybe even more incredible is that when Italy won their first men's game in an extra end the other day against Germany, they showed the entire game on TV the next morning and it drew two million," said Don Chevrier, the longtime Canadian broadcaster who calls the games with Winnipeg's Don Duguid for CNBC.

"We put it on as a joke between figure skatings,'' said Italian broadcaster Dario Puppo, who calls the games.

"We discovered people actually want to watch it.

"It's so close to bocce,'' added Puppo, trying to explain the phenomenon. "People start to figure it out. Everyone watch."

This is such a phenomenon, Canadian coach Toby McDonald says they may have to declare the Italians honorary Newfoundlanders.

"Half of Newfoundland isn't working -- the other half," joked the former Brier winner who is coaching Brad Gushue's Canadian crew. "There hasn't been a fish caught since the Olympics began.''

That doesn't explain the TV numbers coming in from the rest of Canada, though.

Back home, reports Don Wittman of CBC, the games he's calling are drawing Brier-type numbers on Olympic affiliate TSN despite the time of day they're being shown.

"We're getting reports here of 300,000 people watching back home for games which come on at 3 a.m. For games which start at

8 a.m. in Toronto, we're hearing the numbers are around 500,000.''

And in the U.S., where NBC isn't all that thrilled with its Olympic ratings, curling is doing just fine.

It doesn't look all that successful on TV because half a 2,100-seat building is empty. But this, I'm told, is because the organizing committee sold tickets to overseas brokers forcing them to take tickets to 'B' events to get ones to 'A' events like open ceremonies, figure skating and hockey. Those tickets aren't being used here.

That and few people in this area have seemed to care about any of the events anywhere here. The venues are small and few fans have bought tickets anywhere.

"To have those kinds of TV numbers, the people who are watching are obviously in the south,'' says Schmidt, the Melville, Sask., product.

Four years ago, the Italians hired Schmidt, who played Canada's Russ Howard in the 1987 World Curling Championship final representing Germany, to develop a host team.

Now, he said, "the sport has been accepted and has gained some respect. I think it's the bocce thing. They can relate to it.''

When officials announced the Olympic venue sites, Pinerolo was upset it got stuck with curling.

"Now I think they think it's OK,'' said Schmidt.
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