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.


Anonymous said...

2 questions:
i) will this mean the end of wildcards for events other than the Shanghai Masters?

ii) why are they pushing on with this expansion to 128 players. There are 99 Players on the tour this year but only 90 of them enter / turn up for tournaments. Surely the effect of having a 128 player draw is going to be a huge number of walkovers - or is Hearn going to pad out the draw with people who didn't make it through q-school again?

The solution being used for the German Masters seemed to be the right compromise (although I'm not sure about them effectively holding Jimmy's match over to the venue) so not sure why they don't just do this....

Monique said...

David, you have said more times than anyone else in this blog: whatever the system, usually the best players come through and the cream rises at the top. We have seen it in PTCs, especially after the first season. Last season, ROS, TRump and Robertson both won 2 of them, taking half of the share between the three of them. In tournaments with bigger money and longer matches I expect this to be the case even more.
Yes, we might have a couple of shocks in every tournament. So what? Seeing less usual faces will be refreshing and make it interesting. I fully expect most top players to come through in every tournament, flat structure or not, especially as there will still be a basic seeding.
So, in my opinion (operative word is opinion), your fears are unfounded.
What it will do though is that out of form players will get no protection, they will not get paid for losing their first match when others don't get a penny for winning 2 matches. And low ranked players who work hard and do well will get more chance for earnings and exposure. What's to object to?

Anonymous said...

Is this a last ditch attempt to get O'Sullivan playing again?

I wonder has O'Sullivan opted to play in the Worlds?

It will be interesting for the lower rank players, might get a few shock new finalists.

Ron Florax said...

The main thing I don't get is the problem people make about not being able to fit an amount of tables into venues. PTC's regularly have 9-12 tables, and they manage fine, so why would bigger events have problems?

Anonymous said...

What is the matter with matches being held over? I guess playing at the venue is more interesting for the players, but this is their only benefit. The number of matches to win is unchanged, and getting to know crowd and venue a round early is only a minor bonus.
On the other hand, TV and audience get to see the players they like. Chinese people want to see chinese players, in my opinion it is just fine. I am german and if there were any german pro players, I would want to see their matches held over to Berlin too (There is Dominic Dale, of course). In the end it is good for TV/audience and not negative for the tournament itself.

Ron Florax said...

Also, for all the people who doubt that the star players will win 'open' events like this: Here is a quick printout from my database showing all PTC winners, which were played in similar formats:
2010 EPTC 5 John Higgins
2010 EPTC 4 Stephen Lee
2010 EPTC 3 Marcus Campbell
2010 PTC 6 Dominic Dale
2010 PTC 5 Ding Junhui
2010 EPTC 2 Shaun Murphy
2010 EPTC 1 Judd Trump
2010 PTC 4 Barry Pinches
2010 PTC 3 Tom Ford
2010 PTC 2 Mark Selby
2010 PTC 1 Mark Williams
2010 EPTC 6 Michael Holt
2011 PTC 1 Ronnie O'Sullivan
2011 PTC 5 Andrew Higginson
2011 PTC 6 Neil Robertson
2011 PTC 7 Ronnie O'Sullivan
2011 PTC 8 NeilRobertson
2011 PTC 9 Judd Trump
2011 PTC 10 Michael Holt
2011 PTC 11 Tom Ford
2011 PTC Grand Final Shaun Murphy
2011 PTC 2 Judd Trump
2011 PTC 3 Ben Woollaston
2011 PTC 4 Mark Selby
2012 PTC 12 Stephen Maguire
2012 PTC Grand Final Stephen Lee
2012 APTC 1 Stuart Bingham
2012 PTC 1 Stephen Maguire
2012 PTC 2 Martin Gould
2012 European Tour 1 Mark Selby

Anonymous said...

Pro snooker is heavily dependent on TV & Sponsorship money.

TV is driven by ratings, which in turn depends on the viewers being entertained.

Sponsorship driven by the need to ensure your clients have a good time, they need to be entertained.

Even with the current system we get too many yawn matches.

So theorise bloggers all you like - if this change means these two audiences are not satisfied, we will either see a quick revert to the current system, or as Allen says TV will walk away.

jamie brannon said...

It does seem like good news for O'Sullivan, if he wants to return, as ranling would be less of an issue, so could cherry pick his schedule a lot better.

I think it is fine, but a pity we can't screen these events on TV from the off.

Grand Slams start with 128 players but the big names are on TV from the outset.

Mel said...

In theory, I like the new system as I like to see less well known players playing on TV and showing off their skills. However it is the practical aspects that will create issues.

In terms of "fairness", I can see both arguments. In some ways, everyone should have the same chance of winning and the same amount of matches to play. On the other hand, the top 16 are the top because they consistently play well.

Snooker has changed though in that the standard has improved with more TV or streamed coverage and more players are used to the limelight. This system can only enhance that.

snookerbacker said...

Would be quite interesting to see the BBC's stance if (however unlikely) the changes to the list resulted in the likes of Judd, Robbo, Higgins etc. outside the top 16 at cut-off point the World Championship, so not guaranteed to be in it anyway.

Like I say highly unlikely but it's possible with a few poor results a top player wouldn't be there automatically as a result of the changes being introduced elsewhere.

Personally however I would argue that the reward for the top 16 at the end of a season should be an automatic place at the Crucible, I don't see an issue with that and don't think there is a pressing need to change the current format.

As for Shanghai, obviously it's a little too radical for the sponsors. My advice would be to look for sponsors who understand and embrace such changes.