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.