Mention an event that combines ice, brooms, and a big rock, and Philadelphians are more likely to think of wintertime parking-spot disputes than curling.

In a large city dominated by major-league teams, the curious niche sport hardly shows up on the radar. Though there are curling clubs in Chester and Bucks Counties, this area is home to only a few hundred of USA Curling's 16,500 registered members.

But strange as it might sound, beginning Saturday, this region will be hosting the 2012 USA Curling National Championships.

The eight-day event, which for competitors is the first step toward qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics, will take place at the IceWorks complex in Aston. The victorious men's and women's teams among the 21 competing will automatically qualify for the 2014 U.S. Olympic trials and the 2012 world championships.

The juxtaposition of a large East Coast media market and a relatively obscure ice sport, one whose popularity base is in the upper Midwest, isn't as odd as it initially seems.

Curling could use the shot in the arm that a big-city championship can provide, and the Philadelphia area is eager to boost its young but growing relationship with the Olympic movement.

"We're always looking for things, even if it's not a home run, all-encompassing event like, say an all-star game, the Olympic gymnastics trials, or the NCAA championships," said Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress (PSC). "We're looking for those events that not only fit nicely in our region but also really help us further our connection to the Olympic movement."

While there likely are too many hurdles for Philadelphia ever to be considered a viable candidate to host an Olympic Games, countless national championships and Olympic trials could land here.

In the 2008 run-up to the Summer Games in Beijing, for example, Philly was the site of the gymnastics and table tennis trials.

Curling's championships will produce a modest economic footprint. According to PSC estimates, the event will fill about 1,500 hotel rooms and generate $1.5 million in spending.

"I equate it to the 2008 table tennis Olympic trials, which were held here at Drexel," Needle said. "That was a phenomenally successful event. The place was packed. The competitors were excited to be here and be noticed. This curling event, I think, has a similar feel. I think people are going to be intrigued by it."

Cult following

By its modest standards, the Scottish-born sport in which heavy rocks are propelled across an ice surface toward bull's-eye targets is experiencing a renaissance in the United States. It remains, however, a minor outpost compared to Canada, which has an estimated 1.2 million curlers, and the Scandinavian nations.

The U.S. growth spurt was fueled by curling's surprising TV popularity during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. There, the curlers, particularly the photogenic Canadian women, developed a cult following among American viewers, one that remained through subsequent Games.

According to USA Curling, the 16,500 registered curlers represents a 53 percent increase since 2001.

"Those '02 Olympics were a real watershed moment for curling in the United States," said Rick Patzke, USA Curling's chief operating officer.

"NBC showed a lot of it on MSNBC and CNBC, and the ratings were much higher than anyone anticipated. After those Games, NBC came to us and said they were interested in establishing a relationship."

(Despite NBC's interest, though, these 2012 championships won't be televised on network or cable TV. "But they will be webcast," said Patzke.)

Curling officials hoped to capitalize on the uptick in interest by bringing their championships to the largest city ever to host them. Philadelphia was a Goliath in competition with civic Davids, outbidding Sioux City, Iowa; Green Bay, Wis.; Willmar, Minn.; and Bemidji, Minn.

"There weren't a large number of major media markets in the mix," said Needle. "Bringing curling to a market like this, I think, is attractive to them in a couple of ways. It's going to help them grow their sport, of course, but the athletes are going to be thrilled by the attention and the reception they get."

The 11 men's and 10 women's teams - most comprising four to six members - will do the "Rocky" run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art's steps Friday night. Then there will be a tour of the city and a reception before Saturday's start of competition.

"It doesn't take a lot with some of these sports for them to feel the love," said Needle. "For us to do what we normally would do when rolling out the red carpet for an event, some of these smaller sports aren't used to that kind of hospitality and reception. It's meaningful for them. The table tennis folks said it was by far the greatest Olympic trials they'd ever hosted."

'It's growing'

Organizers said they'd be happy if the week's total attendance at the 1,200-seat IceWorks Skating Complex approaches the record 15,000 who came to the Broomfield Event Center outside Denver in 2009. More than 5,000 tickets had already been sold as of Thursday.

"The event started out in small curling clubs," said Anthony Lorussa of IceWorks, cochairman of the championships. "Then they went to midsize, AHL-type arenas. The problem was when they'd have 1,000 fans in those big places, it looked empty. At our place, at Rink 3, we can fit 1,200 people, and with that many it will always look packed."

The multi-rink IceWorks has added a beer garden for the event and has converted hockey ice into a curling surface, being careful to maintain the ideal temperature of 40 to 42 degrees four feet above the ice.

While the Philadelphia area can't approach the numbers of curlers found in Wisconsin (4,000) and Minnesota (3,200), it is not entirely unfamiliar with the sport.

The Philadelphia Curling Club, which experiences a bump in business every Olympic year, was founded in 1957. It initially shared a hockey rink with Villanova University until it purchased a property on Plank Avenue in Paoli. Many of its members are native Canadians.

There are more than 40 curling facilities on the East Coast, many of which double as hockey rinks. And according to USA Curling, an organization based in Stevens Point, Wis., the areas where the sport is growing fastest are the West and Southwest.

"It's growing. I didn't start curling until after I got this job," said Patzke. "It's an addiction. I tell people it's a lot like golf. You're trying your entire life to perfect it."