Ronnie O’Sullivan is an emotional man, a tortured prodigy prone to erratic behaviour during Snooker games, but when he speaks about the sport, he is matter of fact, “it just feels boring,” he said, when asked about the state of the game in 2009. It is a damming assessment of any sport when the top player labels it boring, but is it really that bad?
Snooker appears a laborious game but it requires immense skill and nerve to play. It certainly didn’t bore the record 18 million people who watched the 1985 World Championship title between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor. But that was thirty years ago. Only 6 million tuned into the World Championship final in 2014. It appears the viewing public, distracted by a variety of sports – and other programming – on multiple channels no longer have the attention span required for watching Snooker.
Barry Hearn, the godfather of snooker in the 1980s, reignited efforts to make it popular again with his takeover of the commercial arm of the game, World Snooker, in 2010. Efforts have been made to revise how the game is played, but the problem lies not with the sport but how the public perceive it. Snooker is suffering from a mid-life crisis, it needs to take stock, draw up a three point plan, or better yet, a manifesto of what would be required to re-ignite its popularity. If it did it would probably read like this:
Snooker needs more top level players from outside the UK
Ronnie O’Sullivan, Snooker’s best player, regularly states his disillusionment with the game. Whether it be about sponsorship, the direction of the game or whether he feels able to continue as a professional, he strikes the impression that he is bored by it all. His complaint seems unsubstantiated when taking account of the massive following in Europe and Asia. Asian players such as China’s Ding Junhui and Marco Fu regularly compete in the major tournaments but despite this, there remains a lack of diversity amongst the elite. Twenty-one of the top twenty-four players to play in the Finals of the 2014/2015 Players Tour Championship were Caucasian men from the UK. The public image of snooker is unrepresentative of modern society. Developing talented players that international audiences can identify with would generate mass appeal in turn creating greater opportunities for revenue in the sport. All sports feed off their rivalries, so imagine Ronnie O’Sullivan as the UK champion battling it out with the best from Germany, India, Brazil and Asia for the World Championship, it could rejuvenate the sport, motivate the disillusioned O’Sullivan and perhaps encourage youngsters from a host of diverse backgrounds to take up the game.
The Snooker World Championships should be hosted internationally
“We ain’t going, period!” exclaimed Barry Hearn when asked this year about the World Snooker Championships leaving the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and going to China. The appetite for Snooker in China is immense, according to World Snooker, the game is third only to NBA basketball and football in terms of sports television viewing in the country. There is even support for Snooker to be included as an Olympic sport in time for the 2020 games in Tokyo. Despite this, Hearn is adamant that the World Championships will not move to China. What appears to be stubbornness could actually be routed in a financial argument. Hearn has carefully nurtured the World Championships, with the broadcast rights under contract until 2017 with the BBC. Also, the winner of the World Championships receives £300,000 in prize money, whereas in China the winner of the Wixi Classic receives; £85,000, the Shanghai Masters; £85,000 and the China Open; £35,000. Having the World Championships in the UK currently makes the most financial sense, but just because things have always been done this way does not mean they are always right. There is an immense appetite amongst wealthy fans for Snooker in China, as demonstrated by the Chinese building an exact replica of the Crucible Theatre at a leisure resort in Beijing, in an effort to attract the World Championships. In the same way that Boxing had to vacate its spiritual home of Madison Square Garden and follow the money to Las Vegas in the 1980s, Snooker may have to follow suit. China represents the biggest global market for snooker, it may require more work to be financially rewarding but it would be foolish to ignore the potential.
Increasing prize money and sponsorship should be a priority for Snookers governing body…
Since returning to Snooker, Barry Hearn has doubled the prize money to £8 million, yet with the majority of tournaments held abroad, players winnings are greatly reduced by travel costs. The Players Tour Championship offers a low prize fund of £10,000, with the top twenty-four having to battle it out for the grand final prize of £70,000. It leaves top players with little remuneration and low ranking players with financial losses. Top players such as Judd Trump and Mark Allen have labelled the prize money in snooker as, “embarrassing,” and have asked that players to be paid more. Certainly those who govern snooker must realise that for the sport to be sustainable prize money must cover player’s expenses and still remain something players can aspire to winning…
…but Professional players must accept their responsibility in maintaining the integrity of Snooker.
It seems justifiable for players to grumble about pay, but they must realise that any payment is relative to the revenue in the sport. Footballers get paid more because the revenue in the game can sustain it. Snooker lost a lot of its revenue when the laws relating to the cigarette advertising changed in the UK in 2005. A little perspective is perhaps required amongst the top male snooker players, they are in a better position to their female counterparts; with the winner of the Ladies World Snooker Championships, receiving only £1500. Players only harm the sport when they complain about money, throw tantrums or look bored on TV. The reality is that Snooker is traditionally seen as a working class sport, so it may never attract sponsorship from the brands and companies with the big financial clout needed for bigger prize money. It remains a double edged sword, if the money is right, players are happy and vice versa, but if the sport can build the personalities, and the rivalries, then the money will return. If Barry Hearn can make a personality out of Steve Davis in the 1980s then it just needs hard work on behalf of the current players.
The reality is that the issues contained in this manifesto have been debated for years within the sport. Snooker continues to endure demonstrating that there remains a healthy interest in it, warts and all. How it will evolve, though, is one aspect of Snooker you certainly can’t label as boring.