11.8.08

THE OPEN AND SHUT CASE

Like the black pudding industry, any sport – snooker included – relies on a steady supply of fresh blood.

If new faces and young stars cannot be found then the sport stagnates.

Snooker has always enjoyed a mix of old stagers and young pretenders but there seem to be fewer newcomers making an impact than in previous years.

Ding Junhui apart, there hasn’t been a ranking event winner under the age of 21 since Paul Hunter won the 1998 Welsh Open as a 19 year-old.

Perhaps the way to bring more through is to do what the WPBSA did in 1991 and throw the professional game wide open to anyone who wants to play.

At the moment there are only 96 players on the pro circuit. This resembles a closed shop and the labyrinthine qualifying structure means progress towards the final stages is akin to swimming through glue.

In 1991, it was much simpler: you paid your money and you took your chance.

It meant months and months and months of snooker, firstly in clubs and then, from 1992, at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool. It was here that the careers of John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams began alongside hundreds of other hopefuls.

Many of these players weren’t up to it at all. They turned pro for reasons of either vanity or delusion.

However, they and the 700 or so others cueing up at Blackpool helped raise fortunes for the WPBSA which they were able to plough back into staging tournaments.

Such a move would enable them to do similar today.

It would also bring in an influx of new faces and may provide scope for regional qualifying in what is supposed to be a world game (let’s face it, it can’t really be when only 13 players on the main tour are from outside Great Britain and Ireland).

I can’t be the only person who thinks it’s absurd that Chinese players have to come to the UK to qualify for tournaments in China.

The old guard in the early 1990s were against going open. Their view was that players should earn their place in the pro ranks, not merely pay to play.

Then again, the old guard are always against anything new. That’s why they’re the old guard.

There are, though, reasonable arguments against going open again. The main one is this: it would require a huge feat of organisation.

Blackpool in the 90s resembled a snooker factory. If it was Monday it’d be the Asian Open qualifiers; Tuesday would be the Dubai Classic and so on.

O’Sullivan and co spent months playing and playing to claw their way through round after round.

Pontin’s in Prestatyn could conceivably stage this today but it would take a long time to complete.

However, even if the WPBSA charged every interested player £2,000 to enter you could well get as many as 600 doing so. This would mean £1.2m going straight into the coffers.

Although Higgins, O’Sullivan and Williams had a lot of matches to play, some of the earlier rounds were against low quality players and enabled them to get on winning runs and build up some confidence.

I have no doubt these three outstanding players would have made it under any system but in some ways it is tougher today, even though there are fewer matches to play.

Take Judd Trump. Anyone who has seen him play knows how good he is. But when he turned pro his first match, in the Grand Prix qualifiers, was against the vastly experienced Fergal O’Brien – a former British Open champion, ex-top 16 player and, as everyone knows, hard as nails.

Trump lost and went on to the next qualifying event, for the UK Championship. His first round opponent here was Ding Junhui, who would go on to win the title.

This is about as tough as a start to a pro career as it is possible to get. At Prestatyn, there are a number of players determined not to lose and, in that way, preventing some of the talent coming through.

Going open would be an option to reignite interest in the game. Oddly, the other way of doing so would be to do the complete opposite and cut the main tour to 48 or even 32 players.

If this happened everyone would know that it represented the absolute elite of the sport – a bit like the top division in various football, rugby and cricket leagues around the world.

There would be no qualifying and the players would be easier to market because you could guarantee they would each be at every event.

The WPBSA could then run the circuit on purely commercial grounds without having to worry about what the world no.80 would make of their decisions.

The secondary tour would also increase in prestige because of the quality of players on it. TV companies could well become interested in showing its events, which doesn’t happen now with the PIOS.

Would this ever happen? Unlikely. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas or, to put it more politely, players want to be on the main tour.

Even if the second tour is awash with riches, players want to be on the main tour.

Even if there is no money available – as there isn’t in the first two rounds of ranking events – players want to be on the main tour.

Why? Because all sportsmen and women believe they can do better than they are currently doing. And if they didn’t believe this there wouldn’t be much point carrying on.

However, the problem right now is that we have a rather muddy compromise between the two extremes.

Going open or going elite would shake things up and – who knows – may persuade sponsors that professional snooker is making an effort to bring about an upturn in its own fortunes.

18 comments:

andy said...

Now don't get me wrong, I really like this article, but I think you might be barking up the wrong tree here. You need to ask yourself what area of the sport you want to be addressed. You may immediately say every area, but not all problems in a business can be solved simultaneously. Issues need to be broken down, prioritised and dealt with individually. I think what you really want is to have snooker in a position where it doesn't look like it has an uncertain future. You want the sport to be cash rich like darts, or even better, golf. You want long term deals with sponsors that can sustain snooker without the snooker association dipping into their own funds.

That said, I don't think an open system, or an elitist system would make any difference on the financial stature of the sport. It may make some difference, but won't address the problem directly. A classic example is the premier snooker league organised by matchroom and the grand prix (league format) organised by the WPBSA. The premier snooker league is a massive success, the grand prix has not been classed as a massive success.

So you have 2 similar formats PROMOTED by two separate entities, one is a success and one is a relative failure. So I think to address the problem of snooker's financial stature, you need to address "promotion" rather than "format".

That said, I think snooker could be better popularised around the world by changing the current format. Even if the game is 100 times more popular than it is today and we have professional players in double the number of countries that we have now, we could still have a financial stature issue that needs to be addressed through improved promotion.

I realise I might be setting myself up for a bit of a flaming here, but I found more than one issue in your article that needs to be addressed in snooker. And this comment I've written only addresses one of these many issues. Anyway, I hope all that makes sense and I'll trundle off to my Swiss bomb shelter! :o)

Andy

Dave H said...

Not at all, we welcome all opinions here.

The reason the Premier League works and the Grand Prix didn't is very simple: the PL offers a financial incentive for each frame won. The GP did not.

Therefore, in the PL there is no reason for, or suspicion of, match fixing.

andy said...

Hmmm, the point I was trying to make was that I personally don't think financial and stability issues can be addressed through "the open and shut case". :o)

Andy

Anonymous said...

Without question there should be regional qualifying. Europe and China already have plenty of good players. The Americas and Australia have lots of potential. If British players can't qualify from their own qualifying section, there could be a system for them to try their luck on a foreign tour. Almost all of snooker's recent trouble - the ditching of the Altium deal in particular - can be linked to the dilution of power among low-ranked players who will never be high-ranked players and just want to protect their earnings. And regarding the young talent - if I were the parent of a youngster who showed promise I would force him to get a college education instead because I have no faith in snooker providing a living in the future. I wonder how many great players are being lost this way?

Monique said...

Very interesting post Dave, thanks for this food for thoughts. Although personally I don't see players coming to maturity later as a problem. Certainly not when it comes for them to cope with pressure, celebrity and money. I'm more concerned about the lack of charismatic characters in the game. And to me this is related with excessive censoring applied to players when they happen to speak their minds or express themselves in general. It is also related to the disappearance of the more relaxed team events and mixed/doubles where the general atmosphere allowed for more interaction between payers and audience and a bit of good natured bantering.
To anonymous: as a parent I can understand your point although forcing a youngster to something he or she does not want at all rarely produces success and even less happiness or satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Dave,

With due respect, your suggestion to close down the tour to 48 or even 32 is one i'd expect from a journalist who isn't at risk from being thrown off the tour, possibly never to return.
The core players this system would "protect" all qualified by the old school open tour so why revert to a veritable closed shop when the up and coming talent are knocking lumps out of the old guard former world champions on a regular basis nowadays?
In short, we've seen enough of most of these guys yet with them, the sponsors are not breaking down the doors at Bristol to sign on the dotted line.
The current batch are not the saviours of the sport and some have played their part in hindering the forward movement of snooker worldwide.
I realise you are throwing ideas into the air with the good of the sport at heart but a drastically streamlined tour would finish the game off in my opinion.

TheSnookerExpert said...

Good post there David, but I have more chance of winning the national lottery than the main tour snooker being opened to 700 players.

All jokes aside now, it would be a change that could benefit the game but we all have different opinions and if the WPBSA were to do anything they would spend a long time weighting it all up, which for them seems to take too long.

thesnookerexpert said...

Sorry, not weighting, weighing, just a minor spelling mistake...

Dave H said...

Anon - I genuinely believe most players ranked outside the top 48 would be better off financially on a properly funded second tour (were such a thing to exist).

However, as I said in the post, they all want to be on the main tour where their current financial guarantee ranges from £7,000 to nothing at all.

JIMO96 said...

Dave, I fully support the comment you made about Chinese players coming to Prestatyn to qualify for their home event. You're not the only one who finds this absurd.

I'd favour BOTH a reduction of main tour numbers, AND an opening up of the game. Let me explain:

If the tour was cut to 80 or even 64 players (48 is too low), then qualifying events would be cut, and all players could be seen "at the venue", and the resultant streamlined tour would be more financially self-supporting, and in my opinion would attract better sponsorship opportunities.

However, in addition, I'd be in favour of throwing at least 3 ranking events (World, UK, China off the top of my head) completely open; that is, the organisers of each event hold a qualifying tournament immediately before it, in the same city, that is OPEN TO ANYONE WITH A HIGHEST BREAK OF 1 OR MORE. I.e, everybody, provided they pay the entry fee, or WSA membership fee.

So for example, if there's 64 on the tour, and the world number 70 wants to enter the China Open, he would fly over to the qualifying tournament, at his own expense, and take his chances with the local hopefuls. Vice versa for the UK Championship. The World Championship could have regional qualifying along similar lines to the FIFA World Cup, e.g the 64 main tour players are joined by 32 pre-qualifiers comprising, say:

2 from Oceania
2 from Africa
2 from Americas
3 from mainland Europe
8 from Asia
11 from the UK
4 from an "open" qualifying event

I'd also beef up the PIOS tour, and integrate it's ranking list with the main tour list, so that it would extend down to 6 or 7 hundred players or more. I'd even have a PIOS in at least both the UK and Asia, although preferably 1 in every continent, but 1 step at a time.

Finally, at the end of the season, the bottom x main tour players would go into a qualifying school event with the 20-odd players beneath them on the ranking list, plus a few other nominated players, with the best x taking a main tour place the following season.

Ideally, I'd like to see an (open) ranking event on every continent, and a ranking list like golf or tennis that goes down into the thousands featuring players from every affiliated country, and proper qualifying events held before each event. The current system is laughable.

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas. The most obvious of which to me is to operate with one ranking list and make all Pios open to all professionals and offer ranking points that effect the main list (with varying point values)so that (as in tennis) you can choose which events to enter and if your ranking is high enough you have the chance of getting into the main draw of the top tournaments. John H

andy said...

Hi All,

Moving on to the issue of different formats... :o)

And apologies for the length of the comment! I think I'll be adding it as an article on my own blog!

I've often thought that the current format of ranking events simply doesn't work in today's day and age. Snooker could survive quite happily in the 80s and early 90s before the globalisation boom and emergence of international markets. Sponsors want to appeal to a global market these days and because there are so few snooker events worldwide, sponsors simply aren't getting the exposure they desire from the sport we love.

I've just read JIMO96's comment and like his/her ideas! I've often thought that snooker should be trying to use other successful sports as role models to try to make snooker successful. But the people in snooker don't seem to want to take chances or think "out of the box". It's easy to say let's change the format, but I think it would be very brave for the current generation of players to be the pioneers in trying something different.

I'd never heard of the Altium deal until reading articles on this blog, but after a little research and reading up on what happened, it does seem like snooker really shot themselves in the foot by voting against it, but it's easy to say that in hindsight. It was interesting to read how vocal Williams was on the topic, stating snooker prize money could have ended up climbing substantially, how Ronnie could have made hundreds of thousands more, and the irony that Ronnie actually voted against the deal.

When snooker were renegotiating the World Championship venue a few years back, I was one of those people hoping World Snooker would break away from Sheffield and possibly move to London or end up being a worldwide rotating venue. I really believe it was the wrong decision to keep world snooker in Sheffield, although I agree that the venue is excellent and I've been there on a number of occasions to see the World Championships. I never wanted to venue to die, snooker could have staged a different tournament there, but I was hoping the World Snooker Championships would go global, I think it would have been a great boost for the sport.

I'm also one of those people that believe multiple professional tours are needed all around the world. I like the golf model where there are multiple professional golf tours worldwide and then 4 major championships. It's interesting to know that golf tours came about almost accidentally by players splitting away from the original PGA tour. Now there are more than 20 professional tours around the world. The 20 tours are not on a equal level though and tend to be defined over tiers where you have:

1st: PGA Tour
2nd: European Tour
3rd and 4th: Champions Tour; LPGA Tour
5th - 7th: Asian Tour; Japan Golf Tour; LPGA of Japan Tour
source: Wikipedia (not a great source, but a source)

It's interesting to see the LPGA tour is ranked above some of the men's tours and the tiers are purely defined through financial reward.

I don't think for a second snooker can support more than 20 professional tours but maybe they can support half a dozen round the world. Grabbing some ideas from JIM096 the following tours might be sustainable:

UK tour - tier 1
European tour - tier 2
Asian tour - tier 2
Oceania tour - tier 3
Americas tour - tier 3
African tour - tier 4

I've also added different tiers using the tier methodology used in golf with the tier 1 tour being the most lucrative going to tier 4 that's the least lucrative. Some of it guess work of course! :o)

From the different tours you would need members to co-sanction an official world snooker ranking system that would some how needed to be weighted depending on the tier the tour is in.

The world snooker rankings would determine who plays in the "4 majors" per year, yes, ...very like golf! The top x players from each tour would battle it out in these 4 elite tournaments and each major would be played in different parts of the world where the tours are based. We could have our 4 snooker majors in:

UK
Mainland Europe
Asia
Oceania or America.

Then we would have a truly global sport! And how does this happen? Well I think it would be a very slow process possibly initiated by a split in the current professional ranks.

Any thoughts??

Andy

Anonymous said...

The World Championships should always be open. No Doubt. In the current format there is never going to be a fairytale story where a player comes from nowhere. All sports should have this as it's what the fans love.

NICK B

andy said...

Hmmm, I think Joe Johnson and Shaun Murphy might have something to say about that!! :o)

Andy

Dave H said...

Andy - nothing wrong with what you suggest but, of course, it all costs money to set up.

In a point of order, Ronnie didn't vote against Altium in the original vote. He didn't vote at all, although he made it clear he was against them and has since admitted he was wrong.

andy said...

Of course, but a plan of action is required regardless of how small or large the plan is, with a defined timeframe to execute the plan.

RE., Ronnie, ...are you telling me a UK tabloid was stirring up trouble with a bunch of lies!? Oh, yes, of course they would be! :o)

Andy

Dave H said...

More likely got confused: he voted for the WPBSA board in an EGM just after the Altium vote went down

I'll do something on this topic tomorrow because it's worth talking about for those who don't know about it

andy said...

Hi Dave,

That would be cool and make for an interesting read!

Andy