USA Curling is heading to the mall next week. But it’s not a trip to the food court or to shop the early spring sales — it’s the scene for a unique new venue for one of the national governing body’s biggest events.
The 2024 U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Curling Championships will be staged January 29 to February 4 at The Rink at American Dream, a retail and entertainment venue in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“This is a 200-foot by 85-foot NHL-sized rink. So apart from the fact that you can be on the ice and see a Wetzel’s Pretzels, it’s going to be a lot like a typical arena,” said USA Curling Chief Executive Officer Dean Gemmell. “I think the players are going to love it because you’re going to have the crowd right on top of you, and most curlers like to have a sense of the crowd. It’s not pushed back like in a traditional arena.”
It’s no mistake that the mall that was chosen is 15 miles from New York City on the East Coast, an area USA Curling has never held an event but a place that Gemmell has wanted to explore.
“One of the factors is the opportunity to be in the biggest media market in the country,” Gemmell said. “We’re certainly not going to be able to go into Madison Square Garden here. So this is a really good option for us. We also love the idea that it’s not a typical arena. So we’re going to capture people who will see the events, just because they happen to be at this attraction.”
While this is a ticketed event, Gemmell says there will be a few spots where people can peek in and see what’s happening in the name of creating more fans.
“When I told our athlete advisory council about the possible venue, they were excited about it,” Gemmell said. “So I think in general people are excited to introduce our sport to more people. And it’s rare that we’d have an opportunity like this.”
Gemmell and his team knew hosting a national championship in a nontraditional venue had plenty of risk involved. The event is typically held in a 3,000- to 4,000-seat arena but after a site visit, the mall became a real option. USA Curling has a large trailer full of equipment for this event and moving it all in and out of a mall provides challenges that a regular arena with a loading dock does not.
“I’m grateful that our ice technicians and our crew were willing to work through that because it certainly made their job harder,” Gemmell said.
The seating structure is another interesting facet as there will be 400 seats on the ice level, 400 on the mezzanine level and another 400 on the top level, which are being sold as standing-room tickets. For the finals, Gemmell and company may be able to put some seating out in the ice area to increase capacity.
“We basically had to build out a seating plan and a ticket plan,” Gemmell said. “And then there were questions about what to charge. We’ve never had a curling event like this in the New York City area. So, I think we got pretty close on ticket prices, just by how well sales are going. And credit to American Dream, too, because they’ve been willing to be innovative and work with us to try to figure out the best approach for seating and viewing.”
The ice rink at the mall does not have a permanent concession area or a liquor license, so USA Curling has had to arrange for those two items. Another major logistical decision was the dates of the event, which had traditionally been held in the week leading to Super Bowl Sunday. Gemmell suspected that might’ve hurt attendance, so this year’s event was moved up a week.
With all the pieces of the puzzle falling together in the final days of preparation, Gemmell and his team are confident that The Rink at American Dream will be a successful venture, which could lead to other unique host venues.
“Certainly if it’s successful and we make everything work, we will be more willing to consider nontraditional venues,” Gemmell said. “Curling ice is very specific, so that’s one of the biggest challenges. I do hope this shows other cities and other event people that we can get people into a venue and make it a really successful event for their location.”
Partnering with American Dream was not a hasty process. When Gemmell took over on an interim basis as chief executive officer on November 1, 2022, the national governing body still didn’t have a host for its 2023 National Championships. Denver came to the rescue, but Gemmell never stopped communicating with American Dream.
“I knew this place had recently opened and I knew they had a rink and I thought, well, maybe they don’t have a lot on their schedule yet,” Gemmell said. “So I talked to them, then started the relationship and the conversation. We decided to move ahead with American Dream in 2024 because we’d already done a lot of the groundwork and got their bid and talked through it and worked through it.”
“One of the things we’re trying to do at USA Curling is get much further ahead with our sites than we have in the past,” he added, “so we’re trying to push out sites until 2027 now.”
There’s no better person to plan out a curling event than somebody who has been in the competitor’s shoes — and Gemmell was on the victorious team at the 2012 National Championships, so this event is near and dear to his heart.
“I know some of the things that I found frustrating when competing in national championships,” he said. “So we’re trying to do our best to make it a better experience for all competitors. We still have a ways to go. Some of that will involve more sponsor dollars to make it a better event for our players. But I hope the competitors know that they have a receptive ear from me as a former player in this job. We’re going to do our utmost to make sure everything off the ice is easy and things are prepared to compete on the ice.”
Full Speed into the Future
There’s plenty at stake for the eight men’s and eight women’s curling teams that will compete, as the winners head to the World Championships with a fast track to qualification for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games in Italy.
But considering where USA Curling sat a year ago, there’s a bigger picture in play. Gemmell took over as interim chief executive officer in November 2022 after Jeff Plush resigned amidst messy circumstances. A portion of the press release USA Curling sent out to its membership stated, “We see you. We hear you. We care about you. Our priority is to rebuild trust. To start that process, today we lead with action.”
Fast forward 14 months and Gemmell, who was made permanent chief executive officer in May 2023, has done everything in his power to stabilize the organization.
“It wasn’t an individual effort,” he said. “It was a big collective effort, not only of our staff and our board, but a lot of people in the curling community who stepped up because curling is important in their lives and they wanted to be part of rebuilding some trust for USA Curling and moving us in a different direction.
“We’re still a work in progress and have things that I and our team want to improve. But in terms of just stabilizing things, we changed our membership model substantially. We have tiered memberships and we have a club membership now, so that was fundamental change.”
Gemmell, who had been the director of development at USA Curling since May 2021, says the main key to restoring the trust of the membership was increased communication.
“We as an organization have probably never been accused of overcommunicating,” he said. “So whether it’s been me doing regular town halls where we talk to curlers, or emails, or regular releases on our website, we’ve really prioritized communication. And then the other part of that communications piece is when we do make mistakes, as any organization will, we address them immediately and own the mistake and then work toward a solution.”
As USA Curling looks ahead to a brighter future, Gemmell always has his eyes on how the organization can improve. One of the main things he’s keeping tabs on is the awarding of the 2034 Olympic Winter Games, which is expected to be in Salt Lake City.
“We have both short-term and long-term ambition and in our long-term ambition, one of our agenda items is to develop some kind of national curling center,” he said. “I think that’s important and that could be a byproduct of the Games in Salt Lake City. Or it could be somewhere else. But obviously, 2034 is certainly on my mind. It’s not the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning right now, but it’s always part of our long-term planning.”
In the shorter term, Gemmell would love to have curling on television more than during the Olympics. He’s hopeful in the next few years that he can get the sport more mainstream television time and exposure.
“I think that helps us expand our talent pool and get more young athletes considering our sport,” Gemmell said. “I hope I get to stay in this job until (2034), because those Olympics would be a great thing to be at.”