Barry Hearn is the face and, indeed, the voice of World Snooker. He’s the boss or, as he puts it, the benevolent dictator. However, it isn’t a one man show.

Miles Pearce is World Snooker’s commercial director, securing contracts for broadcasters, sponsors and other partners as the new era continues apace.

Hearn arrived in June 2010 with a five-year plan. We are now halfway through this period so I asked Pearce for a progress report.

“We’re pretty happy with how far we’ve come in three and a half years,” Pearce said. “We’ve increased the number of tournaments quite substantially, increased the prize money well beyond anybody’s expectations and we continue to draw in larger and larger audiences from our television partners around the world.

“We’re seeing that we’re solid with regards to how our growth is going. The game was very UK focused compared with the direction we’ve gone in. What’s happened with China has taken time to come to fruition but now we have five ranking events plus the APTCs.

“Our next big step will be to open it up to even more countries. The European Tour is giving us a platform to test out which countries are big and to hopefully progress them to full ranking events around Europe.

“The big challenge will be to take snooker to where it hasn’t been before or had a traditional home and that’s where we have to focus some of our efforts from a commercial side.”

So where next for the green baize game?

“I think the Indian sub continent – India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – is interesting,” Pearce said.

“They have some good players coming through, such as Pankaj Advani and Aditya Mehta, and billiards is big there, so it isn’t a huge step to go over to snooker.

“We’d love to get back into North America and have another event in Canada but that takes a while because it hasn’t been on television for 15-20 years over there. We need snooker on TV in places such as this because you can then see how it appeals to the population and we can come in with smaller events.”

This strategy, though sensible enough, doesn’t always work. In 2011, World Snooker staged an invitation event in Brazil but this did not lead to a bigger tournament and nothing will be staged there this season, although the lines of communication are still very much open.

“We’d love to go back to Brazil,” Pearce said. “We still have conversations going on and if we can find a strong partner down there then we’d be back in a second.

“Over the next couple of years I would hope that we have at least one or two tournaments in new countries. That’s full ranking events. It’s on the cards.”

Hearn’s stated mission is to have snooker every week of the year. Looking at the calendar until the World Championship this is an ambition not all that far from being realised.

Golf and tennis sustain circuits which run virtually the whole year round, underpinned by television contracts. Snooker’s popularity with viewers, which began amid the first flowerings of colour TV nearly half a century ago, remains strong.

Pearce said: “We have a very strong relationship with Eurosport, who continue to take more and more hours. Just this season alone they’ve shown 682 hours already. Last year at the same point it was 436 hours. This year two million new people have watched snooker on Eurosport compared to last year. We have other broadcasters in place in China, also showing a lot of hours.

“We can afford to do snooker week in, week out. Barry’s big thing when he took control was that we have to make sure that the players keep playing. My role is to continue to develop new tournaments to give the players opportunities to play.”

But not everything in the garden is rosy. Among the complaints from players is one which chimes with many. If, as Hearn has stated, the game should be a meritocracy, why should players who qualify for tournaments in China have to play an extra match against a local wildcard, who is usually more than capable of beating them?

Pearce confirmed that World Snooker may look to end the practice.

“I completely understand that the players aren’t happy about it,” he said.

“There is a difficulty in terms of our discussions with the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association because you have to look at it from their point of view: they are part of the Chinese Olympic committee and their focus is on developing Chinese players. Unfortunately for them, they are building up and developing players but find this hard to justify because the players go into qualifying, which is held in the UK. There’s no guarantee they will qualify so the Chinese are effectively putting on events without any guarantee that they can see their own players play.

“Wildcards are to show off local talent. We’ve been racking our brains to try and figure out a way in which we can get rid of the wildcards but at the same time it’s difficult because of the qualifying structure. Without the CBSA we wouldn’t be where we are.

“It’s continuing to be a difficult discussion. We do fight the players’ corner but we still need to resolve it.”

(In fact, this will surely be resolved by the new 'flat' structures, which were announced after this interview was conducted).

Speaking of China, the widely held assumption within the sport is that the World Championship will move there, sooner rather than later. Is this accurate? Not necessarily, according to Pearce.

He said: “Barry puts it like this: World Snooker loves Sheffield and they have been very supportive of the World Championship.

“Together with the support we get from Sheffield City Council, we also have the BBC, and they are a very important player too. As long as we continue to get that support we don’t want to move from Sheffield.

“I don’t know what will happen at some unknown point in the future. I know that the Chinese would like the World Championship. They’re always talking about it. But at this point in time we have a strong relationship with Sheffield and the BBC and as far as contracts go we are there for at least a few more years.”

Someone who may not be at the Crucible is Ronnie O’Sullivan, snooker’s king across the water. Some say the game will suffer commercially without its biggest box office attraction. There were reports last month that Hearn and O’Sullivan had held a ‘secret meeting’ in which the World Snooker chairman tried to persuade the world champion to enter the sport’s biggest event.

“I don’t think sponsors buy into one single player,” Pearce said. “People do ask about Ronnie but I have to sell the sport and it’s made up of 96 players. Ticket sales for the World Championship are already 20% up on where we were last year at this point. We have to sell the events rather than individuals and that’s not always what happened in the past.

“I don’t think there have been any secret meetings. Ronnie and Barry have known each other for a long time so they may have spoken. The entry date is in February. Ronnie has time to mull it over so if they’ve had a meeting it probably came up.

“We’ve made it clear that we support Ronnie if he wants to take a break but it would be great to have him back to defend his world title.”

Players are often criticised for their behaviour and some have certainly done as much as they can to draw criticism but they are of course human beings and haven’t fallen off the nearest production line. They have also had much to adjust to as the game has gone from famine to feast.

“It’s a harder life than it used to be for a snooker player,” Pearce said. “They are going out there doing a job. To everyone else with a job, some days are good and some are bad. Travelling, I know myself, can be tiring and you don’t always feel your best.

“Players by and large handle themselves very well. It just takes one player to say something wrong and that’s what’s reported on. Sometimes that’s not a terribly bad thing as long as it’s not hurtful to sponsors or our partners. That’s where the fines come in.

“Players can express themselves. Some do it well and some do it negatively. We don’t want clones, we want individuals and players who can project themselves. That’s part of being a snooker player.

“What they are having is opportunities. When we set up the PTCs we had no idea that pretty much every player was going to play in every one of them. I’m talking to Jason Ferguson [WPBSA chairman] about giving new professionals advice about managing their diaries. They need to know they’re going to be very busy and that they don’t have to play in every tournament. John Higgins took the early part of the season off and it proved to be a good decision.”

And what of the PTCs? They were essential building blocks in Hearn’s original five-year plan but were never intended to be around forever.

“The PTCs were put in place to get the players playing,” Pearce said. “Now we have more tournaments and a busier calendar we are thinking about how many PTCs we should have and how many tournaments we should have behind closed doors. There’s no commercial reason for them to be held in private.”

From my own perspective it’s refreshing to see decisions being made for commercial reasons rather than to please one camp or other as has happened in the past. Sport is entertainment but can only be so if it is run as a business, with its opportunities maximised.

Hearn’s original five-year plan will run until 2015 where its true success or otherwise can be properly assessed.

But at this halfway point it is clear that professional snooker has taken significant steps forward since Hearn and his team swept into power.


Ray said...

I'm totally against wild cards of any description and what Barry Hearn said was that it would (not should) be a meritocracy while he was in charge. Now, presumably at his behest, wild cards have been awarded for some players to play on the professional circuit. Players should earn their right to play thus making it a level playing field for all.
What baffles me is what criteria is being used to discriminate between those awarded wild cards and those not? Anything other than performance on the table is totally unacceptable.
Barry, actions speak louder than words. You've done a marvellous job on the whole but this decision needs re-visiting.

Anonymous said...

It won't be a meritocracy until players have a chance to play qualifiers in their own country. It's not like you have to travel to Britain to qualify for the US Open in tennis, is it? Given the choice between wildcards, holding the qualifiers in China, or turning the Chinese events into invitationals I wonder what British players would opt for?

jamie brannon said...

Nice interview, with just one extra question I'd like to have been asked: Is the contract with the BBC going to be renewed?

It is my understanding that next year's World Championship is the final event of the current deal, so wouldn't we get some sort of announcement this year as to whether it will be extended?

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it renewed in 2010 for 6 years? I could be wrong though.

Dave H said...

The current contract runs out in 2014

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview.

Anonymous said...

brilliant interview and great to see the WC is even stronger despite....

Anonymous said...

Also the deal with the Crucible runs out in 2015. The line about ticket sales smacks of damning with faint praise (the Crucible only has 800 seats, of course it is going to sell out for the game's biggest tournament).

For everything that they are saying here, as the worlds have no sponsor at present (and it wouldn't surprise me if the new sponsor is some betting company on a 1 or 2 year deal only) I think there could be an irresistable case for the Worlds to go to China after 2015. For credibility's sake I just hope that it is in Shanghai or Beijing and offers a substantially bigger prize fund (£1.5m or more with the winner getting £300k) otherwise it will be hard to justify all the upheaval that could come with moving it.

Anonymous said...

I think China still has a lot of experience to gain in televising snooker. The World Championship will be a huge challenge for them. You might say they have been broadcasting tournaments for a long while now, especially these last few years, but I watch snooker quite a lot, and the difference in the quality of broadcasting snooker as a proper sport between the BBC and CCTV is till colossal. Having said that, and given China's reputation, they'll probably have came up with some innovations that will leave us all speechless by the time they take the Worlds.
The sad thing though is that everybody seems to be more and more interested in broadcasting snooker except the BBC. That's the reason why I don't think the WSC won't stay in Sheffield forever.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Dave,

Having just read Clive's Black Farce And Cue Ball Wizards, his honest and steadfast determination to challenge all aspects of injustice within the
game are qualities that we all (snooker enthusiasts) should be very grateful for.
His treatment at the hands of the BBC and IMG was nothing short of a disgrace.
He walks away from those two imposters with dignity and a crystal clear conscience.
Dave, if you would do me the service of passing on my personal thanks to Clive for his unrivalled service to cue sports for more than 40 years, I would
be most grateful.
It's BBC's loss. It really is.

Anonymous said...

Are you known to Clive, Graeme? Dave can't just go back to his office and say "some bloke called Graeme off the internet asked to me pass on his personal thanks for your unrivalled service to cue sports", can he?

Geoffrey Mc Donnell said...

I too 100% with what Graeme said about Clive Evertons Book...i have been unable to put it down since i t arrived and the Way he was treated by BBC absolutely Disgraceful!~

Dave H said...

I have passed on the comments to Clive, which he appreciates

Anonymous said...

I had Willie Thorne's book for Christmas. Wouldn't have bet on that happening.

Hardly suprising Crucible sales are up - the tickets went on sale approx 6 months earlier than ever before.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't assumed that my comments would be scrutinised by self appointed blog administrator,'anonymous @ 2.55'. Just exactly why one would insist that only those personally known to Clive are in a position to pass on their thanks is totally lost on me.

Anonymous said...

That said, I am thankful to Dave who, despite such infantile comments, advises that this has indeed been done and that my comments have been graciously acknowledged by Clive. Some people really need to look in before they look out.

Anonymous said...

david can you pass on to clive that id prefer him to use smaller words, as I aint as brainy as him?

Anonymous said...

9:09 -
Are you sure this is the place for you ?
Maybe best to inhabit Twitter or Facebook instead. They're the sites for all things irrelevant.
You'd fit in perfectly.

Anonymous said...

800 ive never tweeted or facebooked in my life, but you seem to have a grasp of what theyre about ;)

fairly sure david knew my comment was tongue in cheek and wasn't in any way nasty or intended to upset.

pity you saw fit only to reply having a cheap shot at me instead of about snooker and its related subjects. you obviously fit in well on any site, insulting people as you go.