News dribbled out just before Christmas of a major change to the tournament structure. From next season, all 128 main tour players will start in round one of all ranking events except the World Championship, Shanghai Masters and Australian Open (and the PTC Grand Finals) - a 'flat' format.
The players were informed at the WPBSA AGM. There is still meat needed putting on the bones of the details but it marks one of the biggest changes to professional snooker for years.
It is the sort of move I have no doubt Barry Hearn would have vehemently opposed 25 years ago when he was the game’s leading manager, heading a stable of stars who carved up the major titles between them.
At that time Hearn was the archetypal Thatcherite ‘loads-a-money’, blazing an entrepreneurial trail, but his latest move sounds more like a communist ideal straight out of the mind of Michael Foot (there’s one for the teenagers).
Well times change and the poacher has become gamekeeper. Hearn’s ethos now is that nobody deserves any protection and that prize money should be earned and not guaranteed.
While these are notions that are easy to agree with, it doesn’t mean his new plan is entirely desirable.
I don’t like the current qualifying structure. I’ve likened it many times to swimming through glue.
In how many sports do players get excused four rounds? The current set-up has stifled young talent and resulted in a dearth of new faces.
This season’s German Masters has used a different structure, in which the top 16 come in at the last 64 stage – as they used to – rather than the last 32.
The new format in use next season goes much further. It ties in with Hearn’s money list ranking system, which he believes the public will find easier to follow.
Actually, I’m not sure most people who go to snooker obsess about the rankings or much care about how they are worked out, but that’s a small issue. Let’s get to the major problem, which is this: snooker, like any sport, relies on star names to sell itself. Under the new format, these star names may not be guaranteed a place in the televised stage.
We are yet to see exactly how all this will work, but there will surely still be pre-qualifying as most venues don’t have enough space to accommodate the number of tables needed to play down from 128.
Sure, some matches can be held over for TV but I’d be surprised if any of these were in the last 128.
Envy of successful players will lead some to rub their hands with glee that they are now back in round one but the fact is all of these players once started in the very first round – under various systems – and all got into the top 16 because they are good: very good.
As Judd Trump tweeted: ‘Five years spent getting into the top 16 and now back in round one.’
One justification I’ve heard for the new format is that its fairer. When I hear the word ‘fairness’ I switch off. Snooker is perfectly fair: two blokes turn up with cues and play each other. The better player wins and climbs the rankings ladder. The more he wins, the more his rewards.
Anyway, fairness is an entirely nebulous concept. It means different things to different people.
Some would argue it’s only fair if top players are seeded through to the latter stages because they've earned it. Others say it’s fair that everyone starts in the first round. Some would say it can only be fair if anyone can walk into the Crucible with a cue and play in the World Championship, regardless of ability or sanity.
Balanced against fairness – and far more important to a professional sport – are the needs of the audience. You can have the fairest system you want and play every tournament in snooker clubs for a pittance or you can listen to what your public wants, and by extension the sponsors and broadcasters who pay big money to create the events in the first place.
Hearn has talked the BBC round for the UK Championship but not the World Championship. Then again, the BBC accepted the round robins for the Grand Prix, which were hard to follow and led to suspicions of chicanery.
Noticeably, Shanghai, the Chinese city which has been staging ranking tournaments the longest, wants nothing to do with the new system.
Mark Allen tweeted that this could be the end of snooker on TV. That is overstating things but he is right that TV wants big names and the new format will have to find a way of providing them.
This brings us back to our old friend ‘fairness.’ Among the various comments from players on Twitter – a good discussion, incidentally – Michael Holt identified the essentially unfair point that although all players were starting in the same round, some would have matches held over to venues thousands of miles away (China).
In other words, some players would be more equal than others.
And in China, you can be assured that most of the players who have their matches held over will be Chinese.
Who decides whether your face fits or not? It will undoubtedly lead to suspicions from players that special treatment is being afforded to some on the top 16 but not others.
All of this makes it sound like I am against Hearn’s plan. I’m not but I am wary of it. I thought the German Masters structure was a good compromise format.
It may be that all this heralds a new era in which new stars can be established, which would obviously be a good thing. But any sport disregards its star players at its peril.
As I said at the start of this, we need to see more detail as to how this will work. What is true, though, is that as we’ve seen in the PTCs, where all pros start in the last 128, the best players will still win.
One thing’s for sure: if Hearn says it will happen then it will happen. Despite what anyone says, the only way to judge its viability is to review viewing figures and attendances next season.
Hearn is at heart a gambler. He usually wins.
Let’s hope he’s right about this one.