ONE YEAR ON: WHAT HAS BARRY HEARN DONE FOR US?
The vote passed 34-27. If it were held again today, a year on, Hearn would surely win by a landslide.
His 12 months in charge have not been without difficulties or controversy but his energy, ideas and commitment have helped to turn snooker’s fortunes around.
But before I look at the various areas where he has been active, a history lesson...
Snooker rose to prominence in the UK as a frontline television sport in the late 1970s. The WPBSA was a players’ club but its management structure was less of an issue than today because sponsors and broadcasters were queuing up to throw money at the sport.
It looked like the sun would never set but this golden era began to wane in the mid 1990s and by the time the tobacco companies were given their marching orders at the end of the 90s a cash crisis loomed. There was no plan put in place to counter the loss of cigarette firms and the game started to struggle, with prize money dipping and tournaments being reduced.
This was the time someone like Hearn was badly needed but, instead, the players continued to vote for the old ways of doing things.
Why? Because they didn’t know any better. They had been conditioned to believe that they – the professional players – ‘owned’ the game and that they should therefore run it.
However, a year ago, with just six ranking events and whole months between tournaments, enough of them – just about – had had enough and took a step into the unknown under Hearn.
The promoter took a 51% share of the game’s commercial rights and the WPBSA reverted to a rules and regulatory body.
Hearn can afford to take a more assertive position because he can’t be voted out. He doesn’t believe in handouts and the ‘guarantees’ culture, where a player would be certain to earn a particular amount even if they didn’t win a single match.
Why? Because nobody gave Hearn anything. He built up Matchroom from scratch and it is now a multi-million pound empire. He did this through sheer hard work and by identifying gaps in the market and niches that nobody else realised was popular.
He realised before most that snooker was not just a sport but a soap opera, its leading lights ripe to be promoted and, in turn, enriched.
He went off to conquer other sporting worlds – boxing, darts, poker, ten pin bowling, even fishing – but snooker was his first love and he has thrown himself back into the green baize world with customary vigour.
But how has he done?
Here are my scores out of ten...
You could only sympathise with players complaining that there simply wasn’t enough snooker to play. Alan McManus – by no means a troublemaker – put it best. “When I put my waistcoat on it feels like a novelty. I’m a part time professional,” he said a few years ago (and was threatened with disciplinary action for doing so).
Hearn devised the Players Tour Championship as a way of keeping players busy while also using his vast network of contacts to set about putting on new tournaments.
Last season there was a ranking event in Germany. This season there will be one in Australia. There will be an invitation event in Brazil and a World Cup in Thailand. There’s talk of a tournament in India. In the space of a year, some players have gone from saying there are not enough tournaments to saying there are too many (expenses mounting up for entering and travelling to them). Hearn’s view is that the opportunity now exists for those who can make the most of it.
The fact is, there is now considerably more snooker than before, which is surely a cause for celebration.
The original stipulation for Hearn taking over was that he would raise prize money from £3.5m to £4m after a year. In fact, it has increased to around £6m.
On rebuilding the circuit and increasing playing opportunities, he can't be faulted.
THE PLAYERS TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP
The PTC series got the players back doing what they do best: playing the game.
It wasn’t perfect. The British PTCs were played in sweltering conditions and some nights ended in the early hours. There was no room for spectators and some players felt it was all a bit undignified.
Those who won the £10,000 top prize probably felt differently and the European PTCs at least had room for crowds and have the potential to grow into bigger events.
The grand finals in Ireland drew huge crowds for the last two days and the whole PTC series at least gave players the chance to get themselves into form, gain some confidence and test their games.
It also gave amateurs the chance to play top players, gaining valuable experience.
THE RANKING SYSTEM
The old system offered protection to players not doing well and no immediate benefit for players winning tournaments. However many they won they would have to wait until the following season to rise up the list.
It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. The new rolling system more accurately reflects form and is in line with other sports.
GLOBALISING THE SPORT
This season, for the first time, there will be more tournaments held outside the UK than in Britain. This is good news. There are still events in the UK but any sport with serious pretensions to survive on the world stage has to actually be taken to the world.
Our World Championship is still British dominated but the best chance of producing top class players from other countries is for them to see the game, either on TV or up close. Eurosport’s coverage goes to 59 countries and millions watch in China. The game’s global reach is expanding and now tournaments are being taken to places like Australia, Brazil, Germany and back to Thailand, which can only help develop the next generation of top players.
There is still a bias towards the Brits in terms of the qualifiers, though, as they are all held in the UK.
All sorts of smears were thrown (anonymously) in Hearn’s direction before he took power, about how he would cheapen the game with gimmicks and dumb down the integrity of snooker.
I’d say that over the last 12 months the balance has been about right between protecting the dignity of the game and trying to grow a new audience and reach out to broadcasters who regard snooker as old fashioned and unwilling to change.
The best of fives at the World Open still produced a top class winner, as did the best of sevens in the early rounds of the Welsh Open. New things have to be tried, even though they will be immediately slated by those who think nothing should ever change – the same people who complain there aren’t enough tournaments to start with.
The best of nine format for ranking events remains the staple but it wasn’t handed down as a sacred, untouchable tablet by Joe Davis – it was dreamt up to suit TV companies a quarter of a century ago.
Well, TV has changed and so must snooker. Every other sport has.
It’s also worth remembering how Hearn’s predecessor pushed six reds snooker as an exciting new format that would bring in new fans. It didn’t and Hearn has jettisoned it completely.
His only major departure from ‘proper’ snooker was the Shootout, which was enjoyed by most who played in it and delivered to Sky one of their best ever audience figures. It was a bit of fun and worked on that level.
The World Championship wasn’t touched (although we finally got a 7pm start for the final) and was a ratings triumph.
I hope there’s more innovation to come and that it isn’t immediately shouted down purely because it’s different to what’s gone before.
One thing I do feel is a shame, though, is the axing of the 147 bonus prize because this devalues the achievement of making a maximum in the eyes of the public. The £1,000 per tournament rolling prize that myself and others have advocated is surely worth investigating, particularly as any sponsor of such a bonus pool would get considerable exposure.
There is now a genuine separation of the commercial body and the rules organisation and the two seem to be working well together.
Jason Ferguson, the WPBSA chairman, is an earnest, conscientious type, a former player himself, who has worked hard to put in place proper structures for the association.
The WPBSA staff are at long last getting some leadership and are also now able to actually get on with their jobs instead of being sidetracked by politics and infighting.
In Mike Ganley and Martin Clark, the WPBSA tournament directors, the association has two hard working, efficient officials who have put an enormous amount of effort into making the Hearn revolution happen.
The WPBSA, though, must take on board the concerns of players and not simply allow them to be batted away. In this way, the WPBSA has reverted to what it was originally supposed to be: a union for the players but leaving the important commercial decisions to people who actually know what they're doing.
This is one area where I think Hearn needs to take extra care.
When the John Higgins scandal broke, Hearn was superb as a spokesman for the game, despite those around him advising him to walk away from the sport. He wisely handed the case over to an independent tribunal and I commend him for setting up the new integrity unit, of which he is rightly proud.
However, the problem with talking tough – as politicians who say they are going to crack down on crime have discovered – is that you really have to deliver tangible results.
When I asked him about a lack of discipline in the game last November, he told me: “Punishments will be draconian because I don’t want to take prisoners. If I’m going to give as much time and commitment as I have been to the ongoing increase in tournaments and prize money, I have to expect a similar return from my top players, and some of them are not delivering. Over the next few weeks you’ll read certain things and say, ‘blimey, he was actually telling us the truth.’”
In fact, all we’ve had is Ding Junhui being fined for the hitherto unknown crime of failing to report an illness. Ding smashed the pack at an EPTC. His excuse was that he was feeling unwell. He should surely have been done for not trying or given leniency for being poorly. Being ill isn’t an offence.
Other players have pulled out of tournaments, sometimes not even notifying organisers. Hearn promised action over this but I’m not aware of any.
In Hearn’s defence, it is something World Snooker are determined to clamp down on this season but, again, talk has to be matched by action.
I think Hearn has to be careful in what he says around disciplinary issues. Take the Burnett-Maguire saga. It was recently reported that there was insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution. Hearn stated in the media that “a cloud of suspicion has been lifted” but in fact the case will now be investigated by the WPBSA, for whom he doesn’t speak.
I’m not advocating the old ‘no comment’ approach favoured by previous regimes but it’s important not to in any way prejudice any disciplinary matters.
FRONTMAN FOR SNOOKER
In his cheery way, Hearn usually wins over any audience. He talks in a down to earth manner and has infectious enthusiasm.
He is also a well known figure in the world of sport and dependable in interviews, which is exactly what snooker needs, not some stand-offish bloke in a suit mouthing epithets.
Hearn will always stand up for snooker because it was his first sporting love. His only problem as a frontman is that not everyone understands that his bigheadedness is an act – most of the time, anyway.
Snooker dodged a bullet a year ago. A few players changed their minds on the day itself. You may recall a rival, though vague, bid was being touted by John Davison of Altium fame, who nevertheless failed to turn up to the meeting. It was supported by 110sport, whose fortunes nosedived after thinking they could take Hearn on and beat him.
I don’t know Hearn on a personal level but he strikes me as a personable lover of sport who derives genuine excitement from innovation. He regards sport as a business but also, crucially, as entertainment. He wants to have fun and for everyone else to have fun too.
But beneath all the bonhomie he is a hard businessman. You would have to be to get to where he is now.
He understands snooker people and has, in just a year, created a mood of optimism as well as tangible results.
I hope he has enjoyed the honeymoon, because it won’t last. They never do. Complacency will soon set in and snooker’s perilous recent past will be forgotten.
And in some ways that is understandable. Players, like anyone else in life, are just trying to make a living.
Every sport has its problems with governance - look at FIFA - and those who run organisations should be constantly monitored. They should expect criticism when things go wrong but deserve praise when it is going right.
So the game is in Hearn’s hands and it’s up to him – with the full co-operation of players – to take it forward.
In my opinion, in just one year, he has made an outstanding start.
I’m not giving him full marks, though, because I know how modest he is and wouldn’t want to cause him any undue embarrassment.
OVERALL VERDICT: 9/10