By DAN BELLEROSE, THE SAULT STAR

For eight days, beginning in late January, the focus of the Canadian curling community will be on Sault Ste. Marie.

The Essar Centre will be hosting the eight-day national women’s curling championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Jan. 30 through Feb. 7.

The opening stone of the prestigious 12-team gathering of provincial and territorial women’s curling powers is still more than five months away from being thrown but the host committee has been organizing for about a year.

“We’re comfortable with where we are at,” said Sandra Randa, host committee chairperson, whose committee began pursing the possibility of hosting the event more than four years ago.

“We’ve already sold in excess of 600 full-ticket packages, we’re right about where Victoria (B. C., host of the 2009 Scotties) was at this time a year ago . . . . Ticket sales have been minimal through the summer, as expected, but we’re moving tickets every week and there will be a few more surges.”

Premium end-zone packages are selling at $369 for the week while side-seating is selling for $319.

Each ticket package entitles the holder to a minimum 21 games, including round-robin and playoffs, and the committee has 3,850 such full-ticket packages available.

A sellout of every full-ticket package would amount to minimum attendance of 80,850 (3,850 X 21) for the week– only four women’s national championships have exceeded 100,000 in overall attendance.

“Our goal is selling out the Essar Centre for each and every draw,” said Randa, whose committee is targeting Northern Ontario, especially the Sault, to fill the city’s flagship entertainment facility every morning, afternoon and evening.

Victoria had about 5,800 seats at its disposal at its curling venue, sold about 1,100 full-ticket packages, and had attendance of about 70,200 for the week, she said.

Later, this year, likely around November, the committee will begin breaking up the full-week package, begin offering opening and closing weekend packages, and even later, if not a sellout, then individual draw tickets.

Randa is banking on a strong draw from the community itself for the ticket drive.

The local curling community is relatively small, “but there are plenty of armchair curlers who follow the game on television . . . we’re hoping they’ll want to take in the event in person.”

The host committee and the Canadian Curling Association (CCA), the sport’s governing body, will get an equal share in any profit while the CCA alone will bankroll any losses.

The host committee, with an operational budget in excess of $2 million, will be renting out the Essar Centre for about two weeks, beginning Jan. 24, one week prior to the event itself.

“The Brier committee had control of the (Memorial) Gardens for a much longer period but they needed the time for the cleaning and upgrades necessary to properly prepare an aging building,” said Randa.

The Sault hosted the 1990 Canadian Men’s Curling Championship, the then Labatt Brier, at Memorial Gardens and the host committee rented the site for 23 days.

The Heart Stop Lounge, the Tournament of Hearts popular food, beverage and entertainment facility, will be located at Soo Curlers Association.

The committee had talked of erecting an inflatable hospitality bubble adjacent to the Essar Centre itself, in the parking lot, but has abandoned the idea.

“It was going to cost too much,” she said. “It was going to cost in excess of $300,000 for rental and interior preparation of a tent big enough to accommodate a minimum 1,200 people.”

Instead, the committee believes they can accommodate up to 1,200 curling enthusiasts at Soo Curlers by transforming the site’s eight curling sheets into a hospitality centre as well as utilizing the upper lounge and lower viewing area.

Spectators would be shuttled by bus from the Essar Centre to Soo Curlers from late morning until early morning — from opening until closing.

The site would offer live entertainment, both local and out-of-town, and admission would be restricted to Tournament of Hearts ticket holders.

As well as offering food and bar services, big-screen televisions would be located throughout the site for people wanting to catch the Essar curling action from a distance.

The Sports Network (TSN) is expected to provide a minimum of 60 hours of national television coverage of the event, covering every draw.

Last year, TSN averaged 400,000 viewers for every draw at the Scotties and an estimated 928,000 viewers tuned in the championship showdown between Team Canada’s Jennifer Jones and B. C.’s Marla Mallett.

The host committee has also attracted a full complement of 450 volunteers from throughout the city and region to assist in the event.

Volunteers serve on the event’s assorted committees and are the face and backbone of the event itself.

A potential boost to ticket sales could be local participation in the event, a familiar face on the rink wanting to win the Scotties and represent Canada at the Ford World Women’s Curling Championship in Swift Current, Sask., beginning March 20.

Scotties qualification is still a long way off, and the competition is stiff, but a familiar face for the host committee could be Tara George, vice-skip on Krista McCarville’s entry from Fort William Curling Club in Thunder Bay.

George, formerly known as Tara Coulterman, learned the game in the Sault and she and McCarville have represented Ontario in three of the last four Tournament of Hearts.

The 1990 Brier committee got a boost when Al Harnden of Soo Curlers, along with Eric Harnden, Richard Evoy and Frank Caputo qualified as Northern Ontario representatives.

The local entry posted five consecutive wins to open the Brier en route to a second-place 9-2 round-robin finish and an eventual one-point semifinal loss on the second-last day of the event.

The entire community, curlers and casual observers alike, rode the wave of the hometown rink’s unforeseen heroics and a national party, which seldom has host-city representation, was embraced by the community.

The Gardens had 18 consecutive sellout crowds of nearly 4,300 spectators each and sold 77,000 tickets overall –the sixth-best attendance in the then 61- year-old national championship.

The host committee turned a $223,000 profit and received rave reviews from the curlers, visitors and out-of-town media for its hospitality and hosting of the event.

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