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America Loves Curling — Until It Forgets About It For Four Years

It’s tough to say for sure, but I’m concerned that our boss, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver, may have developed a curling addiction these past few weeks:

(Check the timestamps on those tweets, by the way.)

He’s not alone, though. Every four years, there’s a fresh volley of articles about how curling captures the attention of people around the globe — particularly Americans who tune in to the alien sport for the first time during the Olympics and get hooked. By now, writing with surprise about curling’s charms has become one of journalists’ favorite Olympic pastimes. The Cinderella run by the U.S. men’s team to Saturday’s gold-medal game has only intensified the enthusiasm.1

The hard numbers also support the notion of curling as America’s favorite quadrennial sports fling. If you look at nationwide Google Trends search data, you can see a massive spike in traffic related to the sport each February of a Winter Olympic year. Indeed, aside from figure skating — and occasionally other sports when they experience tragedy — curling consistently spikes highest in web searches among the Winter Olympic sports we don’t tend to think about over the rest of the calendar.2 Here are four examples:

Google’s data doesn’t go back further than 2004, but in an interview with ESPN’s Dotun Akintoye, USA Curling CEO Rick Patzke said America’s curling obsession can be traced to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. “Salt Lake was our coming-out party in America,” he said. “NBC broadcast about 50 hours of curling. In Nagano in ’98, it was like 30 minutes.” Add in the U.S. men’s surprising bronze medal in 2006, and curling was off to the cult-sport races. Who can even say what kind of uptick in popularity the run by the U.S. men this year will bring?

But for an Olympic darling like the “roaring game,” the flip side of big popularity during the games is waning interest, or generally no interest, in the 206 weeks in between Olympic sessions. According to the same Google Trends data as above, none of the sports we looked at had a bigger drop-off in its average search traffic index between months with the Winter Olympics and those without them.

Curling has the biggest spike in Olympic popularity

Difference in average Google Trends search-traffic index between Olympic and non-Olympic months for selected Winter Olympic sports, 2004-18

Avg. Google Trends Index during …
Sport Olympic months Other months Olympic Spike
Curling 85.25 4.57 +80.68
Figure skating 79.50 4.97 +74.53
Luge 38.75 0.50 +38.25
Bobsled 24.25 1.02 +23.23
Speedskating 21.75 0.93 +20.82
Biathlon 8.25 0.17 +8.08
Skeleton 8.00 0.05 +7.95
Ski jumping 8.25 0.56 +7.69
Alpine skiing 9.50 2.28 +7.22
Cross-country skiing 9.50 2.38 +7.12
Freestyle skiing 3.75 0.45 +3.30
Nordic combined 1.75 0.00 +1.75

Google Trends search-traffic indices measure activity on a 0-100 scale, where the most active single month by any sport we examined is represented by a 100.

Source: Google Trends

Curling’s spike is even sharper in worldwide searches. Across the entire globe, curling-related search-traffic index goes up by 84 points in Olympic months, compared with non-Olympic ones. (By comparison, figure skating is only up 71 points during Olympic months worldwide.) Although gaining a passionate following during the Olympics has been a victory in itself for curling, these kinds of disparities have the sport’s leaders looking for a way to stay on people’s minds after the games end.

“The Olympics have definitely driven growth and exposure, but the key for us is not to disappear between Olympics,” Patzke told ESPN. “You can get really popular for 17 days and then go away, you know?”

Perhaps the next step will be for curling fanatics like Nate to keep tweeting during bonspiels that aren’t festooned with five interlocking rings everywhere you look.

Footnotes

  1. The women’s team hasn’t quite had its medal breakthrough yet, finishing eighth in the standings at Pyeongchang.

  2. Admittedly, this is kind of an arbitrary list, but I included curling alongside sports that don’t draw much attention in the U.S. during non-Olympic years (so figure skating is in, but hockey is out) or ones that tend to rank low on subjective lists of Winter Olympic sports (cough, biathlon).

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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