Phill Drobnick's invite last fall to participate in a learn to curl event in Las Vegas gave him some idea just how far his sport has come.
Curling? In Las Vegas? Really?
Right off the Strip, no less. Of course the 2010 U.S. Olympic coach was game for that trip. This week, members of USA Curling are making another trek: to Indianapolis, where they are holding a demonstration of the sport in the Super Bowl Village.
The turnout has been steady.
"So far so good," USA Curling spokeswoman Terry Kolesar said Thursday.
And 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who first tried the sport in November 2009 and then became the U.S. honorary captain for the Vancouver Games, said he plans to take part this weekend.
"I will be out there!" Davis said via text message.
USA Curling chief operating officer Rick Patzke only hopes such added exposure continues to bring new faces to curling, one of the hits at the Vancouver Games. Curling increased its total membership in the U.S. by more than 18 percent last year, with 15 new clubs becoming members — accounting for 9 percent of active clubs.
"We do have a larger pool of athletes to grab from. Obviously it's not going to make an immediate impact because someone who's just starting this year isn't going to be able to go to the Olympics in 2014 or even 2018," Drobnick said. "Where it's going to make a difference is in our youth curling, our junior curling."
Some of those Las Vegas folks Drobnick taught back in October are now curling on Sunday nights in a hockey arena.
"The growth has been great since the 2010 games. People became more aware, it was on TV a lot, people started to understand it, there were clubs that were popping up all over the country," said Drobnick, now a junior national coach. "A lot of people are interested in it. Oklahoma, South Carolina, they are popping up places I never imagined they'd be. I never thought I'd curl in Vegas."
Still, curling faces its share of obstacles. While pleased with the positive progress as curling's membership pushes 17,000 nationwide, Patzke acknowledges it's all about taking small steps. He would like nothing more than to have a huge talent pool to pick from when trying to field teams to be on par with the top curling nations.
"That's very pertinent," Patzke said. "I think we're still somewhat of an insignificant sport with 16,500 members. If we get to 100,000 maybe we can start using the word of being a little bit more significant. A lot of people are discovering it for the first time."
USA Curling won't get new membership counts until this spring. As of the most recent total, membership stood at 16,853 compared to 14,275 in 2010. Of the 149 clubs that reported to the sport's governing body, 70 percent showed an increase in membership. Since 2001-02, USA Curling's membership has grown 53 percent, with curling clubs located in 38 of 50 states.
Curling is still "piggybacking," as Patzke puts it, on hockey and even figure skating. When ice time is available at rinks and hockey arenas, curling takes the leftovers.
Patzke wants to make those times count.
Part of that process is educating arenas about the benefits of having curling on the schedule.
"It's not like we have to reinvent the wheel," Patzke said. "We're a filler for a lot of the arenas. We realize that, and we're also approaching it from a different angle to educate the arena owners that they can actually learn something from curling and from ice makers to save in energy costs. Our biggest growing potential is in existing ice arenas because of the cost."
That is part of USA Curling's three-phase plan when it comes to growth. First, get more curlers going in existing arenas. Second, help those arena-based clubs transition into leased or mobile curling facilities that are a tenth of the cost of a dedicated facility — typically through leases in vacant commercial spaces. Third is getting clubs into their own curling-only venue.
"It's great to see that people are starting to understand our sport and they're wanting to come out and try it and see what it's like," Drobnick said. "We have to figure out a way to extend that (interest and exposure) across the country. That's going to be the next task. We have the excitement on the West Coast, we have the excitement on the East Coast, we have all these new clubs popping up, but now we have to figure out how not to grow the game but to grow the talent in those areas. That is going to be our biggest hurdle."