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The changing face of snooker

June 3, 2010

Barry Hearn has big plans for snooker -

On Wednesday, the top 64 snooker players in the world voted 35-29 in favour of WPBSA chairman Barry Hearn taking a controlling stake in World Snooker – the WPBSA’s commercial arm responsible for securing the rights to events and sponsorship. The vote was closer than many expected – the rival bid from John Davison offered £500,000 more prize money for the 2010/11 season in return for a 63% stake; Hearn will provide £4.5m prize money (up £1m from last term) and receives a 51% share – meaning that he alone can make changes without necessarily getting the support of players, who, along with sponsors, retain 49%.

But what does this mean for the future of the game? Players will inevitably be enthused by the prospect of more events and more money to play for – at the moment many complain, understandably, that there are too few events over a year. But with Hearn’s oft-expressed desire to add glamour and razzamatazz to a droll, understated sport, will snooker become the next darts, or the next cricket?

Hearn’s success with darts is clear. He has managed to make a pub sport a lucrative television event, replete with entrance music, cheerleaders and drunken chanting. Darts is more professional than in the days of Jocky Wilson, in every sense. There is more money to play for, more sponsorship opportunities (Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s latest televised appearance away from the oche can be seen now in the Carlsberg World Cup adverts), and as a result, a better standard of darts. But darts benefits from being a simple game – however the format of the tournamants change – unseeded draws, group stages, matchplay or sets – the mechanics of winning a leg of darts remain exactly the same.

There is far more that can be altered in snooker; Hearn’s one frame, 64 player knockout tournament is planned for later in the year, and marks the first serious diversion from the traditional game. A time limit (here, 12 minutes a frame) is nothing new – Sky Sports’ Premier League imposed a shot clock on players and has been running, with reasonable success, for a few years. The concept of a six-red frame has also partly reached fruition. It is at this point that snooker runs the risk of damaging itself. The aforementioned event will be an entertaining diversion, but that is surely all it can be. The danger is that entertaining diversions can become the norm.

Snooker matches ebb and flow; pressure builds and is relieved with a clever safety or a smart positional shot. No more is this illustrated than in the World Championship, where, to win the tournament, a player must win 71 frames over two weeks and five matches. Twelve-minute ‘fun’ frames take away the most enthralling aspect of the sport, and contrive drama that is less rewarding for having been created too quickly and without historical context. Enduring moments in the sport will not include a tournament won by winning 6 frames in little over an hour, however much money is at stake.

The parallels with cricket are, by now, obvious. Twenty20 provides music and dancing and a backdrop to drink to, and it has done so very well since 2003. But, as Michael Holding observed this week, the balance is wrong. The four-day county season is, for most teams, almost half-way through and will now take a break as two months of the basest form of the game take centre stage. The season is not yet two months old. An inordinate value is now ascribed to hitting sixes over a railway line. Twenty20 is taking over as administrators move everything and anything to accomodate it.

However, shorter forms of the game are just one of the plans Hearn has for the sport and, as long as this is not taken too seriously could well serve its purpose as bring new fans to snooker. Whatever he decides, anything will be better than the bizarre sight of players walking out to dance or pop music – an idea he lifted from darts, where it works very well. Thankfully, by the World Championship in May most players had the sense to ignore it – however, this served to make the sight even more incongruous than it had been a few months earlier.

It will be an interesting year.


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