Happy New Year – and what an interesting year it promises to be for the snooker world.
Out of the darkness cometh light, or rather cometh Barry Hearn, the man now charged with restoring the professional game to something approaching its former glory.
This won’t be easy. The governance of the sport has been a scandal for decades (as painstakingly chronicled in Clive Everton’s book ‘Black Farce and Cueball Wizards’) but at long last there is some hope that better times may be around the corner.
Cards on the table: I like Barry Hearn. I like his attitude and his refreshing honesty. I admire his record of achievement in identifying niche markets and developing them into great successes.
He’s an ideas man. Some are good, some not so good (ITV’s Tenball anyone?) but at least he has ideas and the nous to try them out.
There’s nothing wrong with snooker as a game. Witness the John Higgins v Ronnie O’Sullivan match at the UK Championship last month or Higgins’s clash with Neil Robertson in the Grand Prix or the second half of last season’s World Championship. On its day, our sport is capable of providing absorbing, exciting sporting drama.
But snooker does have an image problem. To many it’s stale and samey. The players are interchangeable and the tournaments hard to distinguish.
This is where Hearn ought to come into his own. He has the passion and energy to set about changing these perceptions. The previous regime merely pretended there wasn’t a problem.
Snooker needs to appeal to casual sports fans, not just its own diehard community of followers. For this reason, let me predict right now that Hearn is likely to do a number of things ‘traditionalists’ may not agree with.
Shorter formats may be introduced. The look of tournaments may change.
However, this is all conjecture. I don’t have the inside track on Hearn’s plans. This would be difficult as he is yet to formulate them.
But what’s clear is that the WPBSA now has a chairman who recognises the sport does have problems and wants to sort them out.
Hearn has been involved in snooker since 1974. It has been the catalyst for all the success he has enjoyed in boxing, pool, poker and, perhaps most significantly, darts.
As he himself has said, he is a benevolent dictator. He will do things his way but for the benefit of the sport as a whole.
My advice to Barry is very simple: ringfence the ‘majors’ – the World Championship, UK Championship and Masters – because there’s nothing wrong with them but regard everything else as being up for grabs. I am particularly keen that he makes snooker tournaments feel more like ‘events’ for those attending and watching at home.
Remember this: all the tournaments that appear on TV have been either directly created or modified for television. However, most formats were created for TV as it was 25 years ago and have not changed as TV and society has changed over the years.
We must end the perception of snooker – which many casual sports fans hold – that it is slow, meandering and never ending. Having finals finishing after midnight hardly helps persuade people otherwise.
I understand Hearn’s main priority is to renegotiate the BBC contract. After this he wants to set up a new Pro Tour of small events, which will give all players, but particularly those lower down the rankings, more playing opportunities. I’m also told he will invite independent promoters to a meeting to thrash out a calendar that doesn’t involve clashes.
This is not an act of genius, merely a sensible move but his predecessor stubbornly refused to do it. His regime regarded all other tournaments with disdain and even refused to mention them on worldsnooker.com – an absurd policy that has now changed thanks to Hearn and his more open minded attitude. Expect many more changes on that website.
In 2004, Snooker Scene was prevented by the WPBSA from being sold at tournament venues. This was shortly after one of its then executives rather theatrically threw a copy into a bin at the Players Championship in Glasgow. This dramatic gesture was spoiled only by him then returning to the room to fish it back out as he realised it was his only copy.
Well, we’ll be back on sale at the Masters. Hearn will also meet the snooker media for a friendly chat and try to generate coverage that is sadly lacking in the newspapers.
I believe that all of snooker should support Hearn, even those who were against his appointment. It is in their interests to: if he is successful, the sport will be as well.
As I wrote earlier, there will be decisions that will alarm the sport’s closest followers – and I suspect it will be revealed that the true financial position is parlous – but I genuinely believe snooker will start to turn a corner this year if everyone pulls together.
Enough already. If you didn’t have a headache from last night’s festivities you’ll probably have one now.
So for some light relief, head on over to 110sport.tv, which has resurrected, Lazarus like, it’s online magazine On Q, which features interviews and irreverent musings on the game.
You can also watch myself and Stewart Weir interview the eight players who comprised the recent Legends event – when Alex Higgins allowed us to.
These included some of the names who played leading roles in the extraordinary boom years of the 1980s.
Let us all hope that, in 2010, snooker can take steps to once again scale the summit of popularity and thus arrest its slide into decline.