There are many reasons to welcome the new Champion of Champions event.
It’s a return to host broadcasting by ITV. There’s £100,000 to the winner. It’s another tournament in the UK, the game’s traditional home.
But more than anything, it’s welcome because it’s NOT a ranking event. Instead, it is purely for the elite: players who have won titles. There’s no talk of points, seedings or cut-offs. It’s all about prestige.
Every sport has events like this. They are additional rewards for those who have been successful.
Of course, the Masters has been the sport’s leading invitation tournament for the last four decades. The Masters is special precisely because it’s for the top 16. It stands out because it isn’t a ranking event.
But so many other good and popular invite-only events have fallen by the wayside. And that’s a shame.
The Irish Masters was a terrific event. Played at the Goffs showring in Kildare – a bearpit like atmosphere – it was 12 top players and it was a huge deal for a quarter of a century.
Then in 2003 it was given ranking status and the whole feel of the event changed (though this was admittedly also due to a venue and sponsor change). It hasn’t been staged since 2005.
The Scottish Masters – first sponsored by Langs in the 1980s and then revived by Regal – was another prestigious, invitation only tournament which had its own distinctive feel. Events in Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other places all flew the flag for snooker. Look at Steve Davis’s record of career wins and at how many long forgotten titles he won.
The pioneer of invitation events is the man now broadly against them: Barry Hearn.
It was Hearn’s energy and entrepreneurship which saw tournaments taken to then unlikely corners of the globe in the 1980s: Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Dubai among them.
Hearn’s stable boasted many of the best players of the day, in particular the world no.1, Davis. What his events did was test the water and prove that markets for snooker existed in these countries. Invariably the WPBSA then pitched up and put on ranking tournaments off the back of Hearn’s initial hard work.
These days Hearn has changed hats. He is no longer just an independent promoter but the chairman of World Snooker, with 128 players to think about.
Even so, if the strategy from now on is to have a ranking event in a particular country or nothing then this seems like an opportunity lost.
You need a lot of money to stage a ranking tournament: there’s venue hire, operating costs and the prize fund, not all of which are offset by ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcast money.
Invitation events, with their smaller fields, are cheaper and have the virtue of taking the snooker temperature in any given country.
For instance, a tournament was taken to Brazil in 2011. It hasn’t been held since but does not seem to have financially damaged the governing body.
How different to the 2008 Bahrain Championship, a full ranking event which reportedly inflicted on the WPBSA a six figure loss.
Some would say that tournaments should be open to all professionals. I think most should be but there should surely also be room for eight, 12 or 16 man events which are over more quickly and showcase the star names. After all, the world no.100 currently has a choice of around 25 events to play in, hardly a famine.
One of the problems with invitation events is the thorny issue of who exactly is invited. It’s fair to say criteria for various competitions has been elastic down the years (one year Hearn shrewdly made up an eight man field in China with seven players from his stable and Rex Williams, the then WPBSA chairman).
Darren Morgan once won the Irish Masters, lost 9-8 in the final the following year and was never invited back.
Then again, it’s a harsh fact of the commercial world that promoters can invite whoever they like.
Another concern with invitation events is that without the ranking system underpinning them they are meaningless. It’s true that some have felt this way in the past, particularly when players have looked relatively uninterested, but a large prize fund tends to focus the mind.
To most TV viewers, snooker is snooker. It is meaningful if it is being played to a high standard and more so if it’s being played by people they recognise.
The main thing, of course, is that there is so much snooker now. But there’s a danger tournaments may be getting too long – the UK Championship this season will last 13 days.
It strikes me that mainland Europe is the area most ripe for some small, short invitation events.
Germany is a growth area but there are many other countries which want events but probably could not financially sustain a full blown ranking tournament or even a PTC.
History tells us that today’s invitation event is often tomorrow’s ranking tournament. This is why the door should remain open on them, or at the very least ajar.