The best piece of advice Than Tibbetts got when he moved from Minnesota to Brooklyn three years ago was to be near woods and water. And when he saw a pile of curling stones outside an ice rink in Prospect Park, he knew he was in the right spot.
Than started curling eight years ago at the St. Paul Curling Club, the largest curling club in the country. "It was a strange experience coming into my first meetup with the Brooklyn Curling Club and mentioning that I was from St. Paul. It's the only time I've ever said that in a room and had the room go Oooh."
That's because, for most Americans, curling is a winter fling. Every four years, when the Winter Olympics start up again, Americans sit at home, frantically Googling "curling." This is not an exaggeration-FiveThirtyEight found in 2018 that, out of all of the Winter Olympic sports, curling got the biggest spike in Google searches. While curling does have its strongholds in the US—Wisconsin and Than's native Minnesota lead the pack—it's still a very small sport here.
But curling makes for particularly entrancing television, one reason why it sees such a spike during the Olympics. Like many Americans, I was introduced to curling through NBC's coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics, where the U.S. Men's team took home gold and Korea's "Garlic Girls" were a surprise sensation. I didn't understand what I was watching, but I was enthralled nonetheless by the yelling, the massive sliding rocks, and, of course, the sweeping.
"It's a really tactile sport. You start with your hand on the stone, really close to the ice, and the sound the stone makes as it slides across the ice is just this roar," Than told me last week. "It's just got this really satisfying growl as it heads down the ice, and then you're sweeping the ice in front of the stone, and then a 40-pound granite stone collides into another 40-pound granite stone."
And then there's the counterintuitive physics of it. If you've watched curling, you know that the stones physically curl down the sheet of ice. Unlike other objects, such as an upturned cup on a table, curling stones curl in the direction that you spin them. A strategically curled rock can make or break a round (called an "end" in curling lingo).
"Once you get a handle on the basics of the sport, you start getting into the strategy elements really quickly. It's got a great skills ladder." And unlike some other recreational sports, you don't age out of curling in the same way. "I'm looking at the horizon, and I've got 60 more years of this. There's not a lot of hockey players playing into their seventies and eighties."
The Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club has been in operation since 2014, playing at the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park, the outdoor ice rink where Than first saw that pile of curling stones. While the club has grown considerably in the eight years since its founding, there are limits when you're stuck sharing ice with hockey leagues and recreational skaters. "Curling ice is a very manicured, groomed product. It's very level, it's prepared in a special way. And we just don't get any of that on arena ice."
The week before the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020, a few Brooklyn curlers were hanging around after their last league night with a bucket of beer and a bit of impending doom hanging in the air. "We were just hanging around going gosh, wouldn't it be nice if we could have dedicated ice? And I don't know if it was the extra beer we had that night, but something crystallized there." Stuck inside during quarantine, Than and a group of his fellow curlers decided to answer the question, Could we actually build a dedicated curling facility here in the city?
The answer, it turns out, was a resounding yes, and the idea for the Brooklyn Curling Center was born, with Than serving as CEO of the new organization. "The road is paved for us already with the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club," a shuffleboard facility in Gowanus, Brooklyn that opened in 2013. "Jonathan [Schnapp] over there saw a sport they were playing down in Florida, filled with 20 and 30-year-olds, and went, I bet I can build this in Brooklyn."
With the Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club showing a proven interest in the sport in Brooklyn, Than sees a dedicated facility as a natural evolution. "We've completed an early round of pre-development money, and a killer brand built by Doubleday & Cartwright," who helped redesign the Milwaukee Bucks' visual identity back in 2015. "So we've got our brand, our plan, and now it's fundraising in earnest." The group has a few buildings they're looking at; they're primarily looking at re-purposing old industrial spaces.
Brooklyn Curling Center, when completed, will have six sheets of curling ice, locker rooms, event and meeting spaces, and, they hope, a bar and restaurant on a mezzanine level. "You'll be looking out and down over the ice, so even if you don't want to curl, you can come out and have a beer and watch a really interesting live sporting event for free."
Than believes it will be relatively easy to convert interested watchers into first-time players. "By and large, curling clubs are pretty welcoming places. They love to talk your ear off about the sport and would love to have you come try it."
The team estimates that a full-time center at that size would only need about a thousand members to be viable. "When you're looking at 3 to 4 million people with an easy subway ride, it seems eminently doable." Plus, thanks to the nature of the sport, Than sees membership as incredibly sticky. "Curlers don't quit once they start curling."
"The timing couldn't be better for us to try to open a center in Brooklyn. We've got the momentum with the club, Winter Olympics excitement is coming, we've got this notion that community and group events are super valuable, and that there's a viable business behind it."
While the Brooklyn Curling Center is still a ways out from opening, there's still a lot you can do to get into curling and prepare yourself. There are a lot of curling events being live-streamed on YouTube from Curling Canada and USA Curling, as well as the Olympics channel if you happen to have it. And if you're in Brooklyn, league and "Try Curling" class registrations are open at the Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club.
And if you want to watch a game before committing to a class, Than says you can come by LeFrak on Wednesdays and Sunday evenings. "You can stand behind the hockey glass and watch us do our thing."