OTTAWA—Ryan Fry, muscled and tattooed, lowered himself into a folding chair behind the blue curtain, with a handful of teammates and opponents lingering nearby. He was an unusual case, and not because of his tattoos or his muscles, but because of his self-described occupation: Curler.
The 37-year-old has drifted across Canada like a mercenary free agent for his sport, from Winnipeg to St. John’s to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where he helped a team from Northern Ontario win gold two years ago at the Sochi Olympics. Unlike almost every other player competing at the Canadian men’s curling championship this week in Ottawa, his only job is to play the sport: “That’s what I do full time.”
Does that make him a professional athlete?
“We’re amateur athletes,” Fry said. “A professional athlete is someone who is playing a season, being paid through the organization to compete. I don’t think curling is ever going to get to that.”
The field at the Brier is still comprised largely of accountants, realtors and business managers, but the stakes have been rising. There is the lure of the Olympics — and government funding — as well as cash from the Brier and professional curling tours, which has given rise to curling teams who treat the game as a full-time job, if only in another name.
Some have suggested the professionalization of curling strikes at its very soul, as a game known more traditionally as a sociable activity, where the winner buys the loser the first post-game drink. Fields of super-elite teams, such as those on display this week, create a stark separation between the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s like any sport: The more time you put into it, the better you’re going to be,” said long-time Alberta skip Kevin Koe. “It seems like not too many young teams . . . it looks like such a daunting task.”
Melanie Hughes is general manager of Mayflower Curling Club in Halifax, home to six-time Canadian women’s champion Colleen Jones. She said for a good club-level team to consider making a run at a Canadian Olympic berth, for example, curlers would have to make a “four-year commitment” to put careers, hobbies and family “on hold.”
“Not everybody is willing or able to do that,” she said. “And that’s fine, but they’re kind of losing a place for those people at the national championship level.”
On Sunday night, the winning team at the Brier will claim a prize worth approximately $225,000, with the total including $144,000 in funding from Sport Canada. Elite teams can also compete in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, a seven-stop tour owned by Rogers Communications Inc., with $1.5 million in prize money spread over seven events this season.
There is also money available on the World Curling Tour, as well as other stops. With the possibility of corporate sponsorship added to the mix, some back-of-the-envelope math suggests it might be possible to survive as a full-time curler. (As fully-carded athletes, for example, all four players on the Northern Ontario rink — Fry, skip Brad Jacobs and E.J. and Ryan Harnden — are collecting $1,500 a month from Sport Canada.
“This is the thing,” Jacobs said, “you have to win.”
“To bring it into perspective: If we aren’t able to win this weekend, you lose about 25 percent of your income,” Fry said, nodding to the government funding. “To be even semi-professional in curling, you have to win the biggest events.”
Jacobs estimated it costs his team around $100,000 to compete through a full season, including the cost of flights, hotels, meals and entry fees. Glenn Howard, veteran skip of the Ontario rink, said his team is not competing in as many events this year, but that its expenses will still likely be around $80,000.
Koe, Jacobs and Howard said the curlers chase most of their own sponsorships, sometimes cold-calling prospective partners. Howard said his rink only has two sponsors this season.
“I’ll be honest with you: Without these guys, we couldn’t curl,” Howard said. “It would cost me money. So we have just enough money to cover expenses . . . not quite all of our expenses.”
Brett Gallant, a 26-year-old with Newfoundland and Labrador, is the only other curler in the field to list the sport as his primary occupation, and he said he plans to return to university to finish his degree in business administration.
Fry, who lives in Toronto, said he is looking for a job — a regular, non-curling job — that would give him the time necessary to curl.
“We’re not getting rich by any way, shape or form in curling,” he said. “It’s very much a love affair.”