Things have changed markedly in the last year and a bit, most would say for the better.
More tournaments, global expansion and a feeling that the game is on the up have created a mood of optimism.
But you don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to find players unhappy with various aspects of their professional lives.
In short: the Barry Hearn honeymoon appears to be over.
I was in Gloucester last week for PTC7 where I spoke to a number of players, some off the record and some, like Stephen Maguire, in an interview.
Maguire, to his credit, has always spoken his mind, as he did again when I asked him for his views on the PTCs.
“I don’t enjoy them,” he said. “You play in a cubicle with no audience and no atmosphere. We play for years to try and get out of the cubicles and now we’re back in them. It’s hard to play well in that set up but you have to keep coming for the points.
“I’ve lost all respect for the ranking system. All anyone is looking at is the cut-off points and if I won’t drop down then I won’t play in a PTC.
“I feel like a bit of a prostitute, turning up for these events because I have to. Some of us got stick [from Hearn] for not entering tournaments because we wanted more time with our families. It’s up to me if I choose not to enter an event. If you don’t want to play you shouldn’t be forced into it.
“If you travel anywhere now you’re out of pocket unless you do really well.”
So what do we make of this?
A spoilt sportsman who doesn’t know how lucky he is or the heartfelt concerns of someone who feels he isn’t being treated in a manner worthy of his status?
As usual, the answer lies somewhere in between the two.
First of all, it’s important to point out that Maguire isn’t the only player who feels this way. Other top stars share his view and even some reasonable, sensible players lower down the ranking list are unhappy that they are shedding out large amounts of money with little prospect of serious return.
One described the European PTCs as “buying ranking points.” Most likely players will lose money on a trip to, say, Warsaw but can’t afford to miss out because of the points the events carry.
I think Maguire makes a good point about the cubicle set up. He’s right that players work hard to become free of that environment and to end up back there is a comedown.
Gloucester is a much, much better environment to play than Sheffield but still does not have the atmosphere of a big TV tournament.
But when Maguire talks about being ‘forced’ to play he is actually just articulating what many people feel about their jobs.
Most of you reading this now will know the feeling of waking up in the morning and really, really not wanting to go to work. But you do because you have to put food on the table. In that sense you don’t have a choice.
And snooker players, as in any other profession, will sit round with their colleagues complaining about having to do it. Go to any workplace and this is what you will find.
In fact, top snooker players who earn good money do have a choice, but not playing could be to the detriment of their ranking position, which is the trap Maguire is talking about.
A teacher cannot pick and choose what days they work. They can’t decide not to teach a particular class because they feel it’s beneath them.
The difference, though, is that teachers are not required to go to countries like China at their own expense to work.
The globalisation of snooker is a good thing for the sport and its future but it has left many players out of pocket with mounting expenses.
While it may be true to say they all have the same chance to win the top prize, it is equally true to say they are not all going to win it.
Most will bow out early and not even break even at the European PTCs, all of which increases the pressure of when they are actually playing. PTC11, due to be staged in Europe, is apparently to be held in the Badminton Hall in Sheffield, which will at least reduce expenses for British based players (i.e. the vast majority).
All that said, there is a great deal of money to be made playing snooker and when top players end up skint it is usually because of bad choices they have made, either spending money recklessly or putting their faith in shysters determined to rip them off.
This is why players desperately need independent financial guidance, ideally initiated through a structure at the WPBSA.
Maguire is not a lone voice but by no means everyone agrees with him. One lower ranked player told me that “the top players have been overpaid for years and shouldn’t be complaining.”
Another expressed astonishment that players were carping only two years after they were playing in just six or seven tournaments a year.
Shaun Murphy has said that he plays in just about everything because he wants to “create a store of memories” he can pass on to his children and grandchildren, and that he won’t do that sat at home.
Many other players are enjoying the opportunity the PTC affords and relishing the busy season in progress.
One of the problems is that many top players had it sweet when tobacco firms pumped millions into the game. For instance, Mark Williams won £270,000 – snooker’s biggest ever first prize – for becoming world champion in 2003. After local tax of 46% was withdrawn from his runners-up prize at the Australian Open he says he was left with roughly £9,000, out of which he had to pay his expenses.
It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed and it’s easy to see why. Some players are openly saying they won’t be going to Australia next year.
And expenses are going to mount. After Christmas, running into the World Championship, there is a succession of tournaments in foreign climes.
This is all to the good in my opinion but it is vital that the structure of the tournament calendar is looked at, otherwise players will – understandably – not be playing in certain events.
At the back end of February the players are expected to go to China for the World Open, possibly on to India for a new tournament, then back to Europe for the PTC grand finals, then back out to China and then back to Britain for the World Championship. All this in the space of five or six weeks.
Other sports have, for instance, an ‘Asian swing’ so that they play a succession of events in a particular region.
This would surely be better in snooker, although of course Hearn and his team is having to largely start over again after years in which the sport drifted aimlessly.
His attitude is to get as many tournaments on as possible and, in fairness, this is what the players have asked him to do.
And players, like many other people, are motivated by financial gain. Personally I see nothing wrong with this.
But they need to be honest about it. Some of the players who skipped the Poland PTC didn’t do so to spend more time with their families: they were in China playing in an unsanctioned exhibition event.
Flying around the world is less arduous when you are being well paid for it.
Only hardcore snooker fans, in the minority, involve themselves in every aspect of tour structure and the minutiae of the circuit. Most just enjoy watching the game and are happy with the increased amount of tournaments and the opportunity to see more players.
However, some of the players who vociferously supported Hearn’s coronation are now finding that the game has become a runaway train they are finding hard to keep up with.
There is much to adjust to and so complaints are inevitable and understandable, but I think everybody has to realise that snooker is not premier league football or golf or tennis. Those sports attract vast amounts of sponsorship revenue. Snooker, which has always suffered from cultural snobbery, does not. It depends mainly on betting firms, most of whom do not pay fortunes. With the world economy how it is, sponsorship is going to be harder and harder to obtain.
Therefore not every new event is going to be like the World Championship. Major tournaments are not going to fall from the sky, replete with huge prize funds.
For this to change the sport has to be built up again, and the players are key to this. Things are not perfect – and the schedule is going to create more problems – but what is the answer? To go back to how it was before? Does anyone really want that?
Players said they wanted more tournaments. They have them. They aren’t all ideal by any means and they don’t all make financial sense, but one thing Hearn can’t be criticised for is doing what he was asked: to get events on.
Maybe the moral of the story is this: be careful what you wish for.