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Eight Ends: Making sense of curling’s points, ranking system

Eight Ends is your weekly source for news, notes, insight, and analysis from around the curling world. This week we tackle the thrilling topic of the sport’s points and rankings system.

1st End: Team Kevin Koe lead Ben Hebert believes the sport’s points and rankings system is broken. Skip Brad Gushue hasn’t liked it for years and is in favour of starting over from scratch.

It’s been bubbling under the surface but reached a boiling point following Team John Epping’s Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and Shorty Jenkins Classic title victories last month as they surpassed Team Brendan Bottcher for No. 2 in the World Curling Tour rankings. That sparked an interesting dialogue on Twitter: Shouldn’t Bottcher, who won three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles last year, still rank higher?

This weekend’s Stu Sells Toronto Tankard at High Park Club features a number of top teams on the men’s side including Epping and Koe plus the likes of Team Brad Jacobs and Team Brad Gushue. Word on the sheet is the players will attempt to gather and iron out their issues with the points system.

2nd End: Let’s break down what happened here. Epping earned roughly 71 points for winning the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and 87 points for the Shorty Jenkins Classic. Bottcher’s three Grand Slam victories were within the same range from 78 to 87 points.

One would think if the Grand Slams are indeed the top events on the tour that winning those would give you not only the maximum value but they’d also hold a significant buffer over the next level of events.

“John Epping had a great start and beat two very good fields, but I agree with Ben, I don’t think they should have jumped ahead of Bottcher, who won three Slams and lost the Brier final last year, an incredible year,” Gushue said Thursday from High Park Club. “I don’t think because they played two events this year they should have jumped as much but certainly there is a lot of value in winning the events that they did. The Shorty Jenkins had a great field and so did the Oakville event but the points shouldn’t be as much as winning a Slam or the Brier. It definitely should not be more than and really should be looking at maybe 20 percent less, in my opinion, because everybody views the Slams as important events, so there has to be something to that, some reward for those.”

Team Epping lead Brent Laing admitted he hasn’t been following the points too closely but certainly took notice of how many points his club earned with their title wins.

“When I saw the points I thought that it got changed and the Grand Slam was going to be 110 points and now I hear that it’s not,” Laing said. “We’re going to win more for the Shorty than the first Grand Slam and that’s crazy talk. I know it’s basically the same field but it’s just not the same event. I think there are some tweaks that need to be made.”

3rd End: The current system came into play in 2015, oddly enough designed by Bottcher, who also happens to be a smart math guy. The gist of Bottcher’s system is it takes into account the prize money, the number of teams competing, the strength of the field and, in the case of high-profile events, an importance factor. The last ingredient is meant to ensure events like the Grand Slams — as well as national championships like the Brier — are given a significant boost to reflect their place within the sport.

If it sounds complicated, well, that’s because it is.

That complexity is also why you end up with such precise points figures for each and every event, according to Curling Zone owner Gerry Geurts, who manages the points/ranking system. No two events on tour are completely alike with different fields, number of teams and formats and it can be tough to find some common ground to scale it all out. Geurts looks at Bottcher’s system as a way to “rank events against each other more efficiently.”

“The system has been pretty hammered out so far,” Geurts said. “I think some of the complaints that we get where a lot of it is just an understanding of the system. I hear that from a bunch of people that they want a simpler system but the problem is if you simplify the system we’re already dealing with a lot of apples and oranges as to how everything plays out.”

4th End: Geurts points towards some success stories since the system was implemented with Kerri Einarson and Casey Scheidegger rising up through the rankings quicker and sticking around thanks to consistent play. Under the old system, it would have been harder for them to break into the elite stage.

“The old system had a more stable list at the top but it was hard to win your way in,” Geurts said. “This system now you have to continue producing in order to stay in those positions and when you’ve got so many different factors and so many moving parts in our sport, we need a system that can adapt across borders all around the world.”

Gushue feels there has to be another way to achieve that without seeing it negatively affect teams at the top of the order. His team started out No. 1 last season and finished at No. 9 despite consistently qualifying for the playoffs because they didn’t play in as many events as some other teams. Now he sees Bottcher in a similar situation.

“Ultimately, the point of this is to find out who the best teams in the world are,” Gushue said. “I think whatever system you get, once you get past probably the top 15 or 20 it’s going to be pretty murky and hard to differentiate those teams. …

“The fact that it’s moving in and out, I don’t necessarily view that as a positive because right now, the only reason that’s happening is because some teams are starting earlier than some of the others and if we’re looking at the ultimate goal from a Canadian perspective of getting the best team to the Olympics, we shouldn’t be forcing them to start playing in mid-August. A team like Gunner (Jason Gunnlaugson) this year was playing in July to build points and if they got off to a great start they could have jumped right up in the rankings before anybody played. I just don’t see that as making any sense at all.

“I’m not a fan of the ranking system at all. If I was going to rank it out of 10, I would give it a one just because we actually have rankings.”

5th End: Adjusting the importance multiplier could be the short-term solution but the problem according to Laing becomes who decides what that value is.

“You either want a system that is totally math or you want a system that is, you know what, this panel decides who is the best team. The in-between is tough,” Laing said. “The importance factor one is a tough pill for me to swallow, too. You know which ones are important, the ones that have the most money and that are on TV. … They’re called the majors, the Slams, for a reason. Those need to be our biggest points.”

Laing is a fan of a tiered system of events as seen in tennis where you know ahead of time how many points each tournament is going to net you. That may not necessarily work in curling because of how events have grown organically through different regions and purses aren’t at the same level as tennis to allow teams to fly to events all over.

“If we decided to do something similar where we just assign values to the events it would turn into a political exercise where somebody in a boardroom decides Eastern Europe gets two events, Atlantic Canada gets five and Western Canada gets eight just arbitrarily by some other factor,” Geurts said. “The way the points system is designed and developed right now it puts the value, the actual value on events played, and returns that value out in winnings. You end up with a system that actually addresses the regionalism that’s part of our sport that makes it possible for us to continue to properly rank events and teams from around the world.”

6th End: Both Gushue and Laing think the number of teams shouldn’t be a factor in the points equation.

“If you’ve got the top 16 teams in a 16-team event and in a 32-team event you still have the top 16, it’s still the same difficulty to get through, so I don’t love the fact that some of these big events — because there are more teams — you can gain more points. I’m not a big fan of that,” Gushue said. “Even if it’s a 10-team event or something like the Canada Cup with nine teams, it’s just as tough as a 32-team event.”

Laing added: “I mean, Shorty, sure, a great field so it’s going to be a lot of points but that Oakville one, that was a surprise to me. Again, I haven’t looked back hard enough to know the real reason on what it was but everybody I’ve talked to has said it’s because of the number of teams, that really helped, and that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

7th End: Let’s call this one Gushue’s law of averages. Gushue has been pushing for an average per event as seen in golf to determine rankings that reward continued success rather than playing as much as possible, only counting your top eight and throwing out your worst results.

“There should be some penalty for not making the playoffs or not gaining any points because right now all you do is you add another event and go play and move on because that to me doesn’t show the consistency,” Gushue said. “Bottcher last year didn’t play a couple of Slams and the ones they played, they won, so they should have been No. 1, there’s no doubt. I don’t think anybody would argue that so we’ve got to get a system that shows the actual situation and the point system right now I don’t think does a very good job of that.”

He added: “I’m a big believer in a complete overhaul of the system. I think we need to basically erase that, start from scratch and we can figure out from some of the other sports that do it. I’m advocating for the average.”

Geurts is open to some changes but nothing like the scorched-earth approach.

“It’s still not perfect,” Geurts said. “There are certainly things that we’re always looking at to try and improve but at this point, I feel like we’re down to mostly tweaking from where it is.”

8th End: This is obviously something that will not change overnight, especially now that we’re knee-deep into the season, but one possibility that could pick up steam this weekend is the reformation of the players’ association.

Laing cited the creation of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling and how it was the result of 18 teams banding together and ensuring it got off the ground to become a success. He also mentioned every time players meet with a governing body of the sport now, the main takeaway is how much they need a players’ association and yet nothing has come of it so they have no one to blame but themselves.

“We’re on TV hundreds of hours a year and we don’t have a players’ association representing us with Rogers, with Curling Canada, with the World Curling Federation, with anybody and just speak up,” Laing said. …

“You can go on your own and speak loud enough you’ll be heard when it should be a unified voice from the players and that’s on us. If we want a certain system or we want to see change, then we should be able to organize and get that done.”

Gushue added: “Ultimately we need to get a players’ association back going where we can get enough representation, sit some people in a room for a few hours, weigh the pros and cons of each different alternative and then figure out which one. Right now I don’t think the players are giving much credit to it and there should be some credit to being No. 1 in the world. Certainly, there should be more emphasis on it where right now everybody views it as a messed-up system and it’s not that big of a deal — whereas in tennis or golf it’s a huge deal — and where No. 1 you could not play for three weeks and we’re fifth. It doesn’t make sense.”