The Betfred.com World Championship was today launched in fine style by the two top seeds this year, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan, at the Royal Automobile Club in London.
The two stars took part in a raft of media interviews and played a frame of snooker for the Killing Cancer charity. The frame itself was not a classic but, at £50 per point they raised £4,000 for a very worthy cause.
Higgins and O’Sullivan joined WPBSA chairman Barry Hearn and Betfred founder Fred Done for a lively press conference as the countdown to snooker’s biggest event continues.
Done described Hearn in an interview for Eurosport as “the best sports promoter I have ever worked with” and said he wanted to sign on as sponsor for another four years, even though there are still two years to run on the existing contract after this year’s championship.
“What I like about Barry is his enthusiasm. You can see it pouring out of his veins,” Done said. “We didn’t get this enthusiasm last year.”
O’Sullivan was also keen to give his backing to Hearn, who is attempting to push through wide ranging changes to the way snooker is governed after years in which the sport has slowly declined.
“It has to be voted through,” O’Sullivan said. “Look at all the new playing opportunities – what more can you ask?
“I’m sure the players will see sense. If they don’t then it’s all over as far as I’m concerned.”
Hearn described Higgins and O’Sullivan as the sport’s ‘flag bearers.’ He said Higgins “is a great character when you can understand what he’s saying with that accent of his.” At one stage he put his arm around Ronnie and said, “he’s a lunatic but I love him.”
And he disagreed with O’Sullivan’s assertion that snooker could never enjoy the financial success of golf.
“For years, the lunatics have been running the asylum,” Hearn said. “Things have to change and if they do then, in time, we can get to where golf is. One day the World Championship could have a £1m first prize.
“But we all have to work together. All the whinging, moaning mediocrity has to stop. We need to be uplifted. You have to love what you do every second.”
Hearn assured traditionalists that the World Championship will not be messed with, although he is considering musical walk-ons.
“You don’t change the crown jewels,” he said. “You put the World Championship at the top of the pyramid and build everything else around it.”
Higgins and O’Sullivan were once teenage newcomers chancing their arms at the game they had taken up as boys in the height of the UK snooker boom.
They are now two of the game’s leading ambassadors and best known faces. This comes easier to Higgins but O’Sullivan did his round of interviews as well and the day proved to be a good advert for snooker and the direction in which it is heading.
I asked Ronnie if he could see himself going to the Crucible at the age of 52 like Steve Davis. “Yeah, to watch,” he said, incredulous at the idea he would still be playing then.
Despite his well documented blow-ups, you can tell that, deep down, his love for snooker is still there, even if it isn’t there all the time.
A word on the podcast with Hearn, which should be available to download this evening: this was done after he had completed his other media interviews and, because he had meetings to get to, was slightly shorter than I had envisaged.
I didn’t have time to ask all of the questions sent in but got through a fair few in rapid fire fashion.
Alas, I neglected to press record until ten or so seconds into his first answer, so it starts with him in mid sentence. I’m not sure podcasting is going to be a new career for me.
I’ll give Hearn the last word because, like everyone else, he can’t wait for the 17-day Crucible marathon to begin.
“The World Championship is the cream on the cake,” he said. “It’s the reason professional snooker players play the game. It’s up there with the other top events in sport.
“The royalty of our sport will gather in the snooker city of Sheffield and it’s going to be fantastic. We can show the world that we can still deliver great sporting drama.”