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.