It was the 2000 UK Championship in Bournemouth. I was in the pressroom hammering away at some vital story or other when a voice in my ear, a colleague from TSN (later 110sport), broke the news:

“Keep it to yourself but we’re launching a rival tour.”

And so began the bloodiest period in snooker’s seemingly endless off table civil war, pitting player against player, friend against friend, and threatening to rip the game apart before ending in a damaging and costly high court battle.

It was terrific fun!

I remember being at the Scottish Masters the previous year where I was invited alongside other journalists into a room to watch a presentation for a new website. It was being set up by CueMasters (the name of TSN before TSN became 110sport – all clear?), the management group who back then looked after Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams, Ken Doherty and many others.

CueMasters was run by Ian Doyle, a garrulous workaholic, always friendly to the media, who had steered Hendry’s career since Hendry had been a boy. The new venture was to receive huge investment - £10m – from Warburg Pincus, a city finance house. This was a big deal.

Back then, the Internet had not permeated daily life in the way it does today. There was no broadband. There were no social networks or even Youtube. The net was viewed by some with suspicion and as an irrelevance by others.

Step forward the snooker world. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, at first nothing. A website was set up and very good it was too. I know, I wrote a lot of it.

There was a good team led by Stewart Weir, a Scottish journalist who had undertaken snooker’s version of national service by being WPBSA press officer, a role I also, briefly, held.

We had a lot of fun and no real competition. World Snooker didn’t even have a website. We produced fun features and snooker news, video interviews, live scoring and much more besides.

But, of course, this being snooker there had to be a row and it was over Internet streaming rights. TSN wanted live content to draw users. They did a deal with BBC Scotland to show the Scottish Masters and we decamped to a makeshift studio where myself and Ruth McAvinia did our impressions of Davids Vine and Icke (I’ll leave you to decide which was which).

It was kind of a snooker version of Wayne’s World – not the polished production values of the BBC but fun and fluid. The players were relaxed with us. At one point someone pressed the wrong button and Phil Yates, a studio guest, appeared on screen eating his dinner. Nobody cared. We were enjoying ourselves.

Enter the WPBSA. TSN offered them £3.3m to sponsor tournaments, stream the events and were willing to give the governing body 45% of the profits. A great deal, then, for the WPBSA bearing in mind tobacco sponsorship was on the way out and there were no competing bids for Internet rights.

Of course, they turned it down.

TSN – headed by businessman George Smith and solicitor Gerry Sinclair – were mystified. The WPBSA spread the word in the players’ room that it was all a plot by Doyle to ‘take over the game,’ painting Ian as a sort of Bond villain, James rather than Nigel. (As an aside, the WPBSA chairman at the time, Peter Middleton, was in fact a former MI6 agent).

The WPBSA spent so much time saying Doyle wanted to take over the game that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know exactly who had the idea to launch a rival tour but with the two sides unable to work together that’s what happened. It was either a bold or stupid move, depending on who you supported.

I was wary. I liked the TSN lot, and not just because they were paying me. They had new ideas, were progressive and wanted to shake things up. However, it wasn’t immediately apparent that they actually knew what they were doing.

TSN first offered the WPBSA £8.8m to take over the circuit. When the WPBSA declined, they decided to go it alone.

TSN held some trump cards: they had Hendry and other top players. Crucially, though, they did not have broadcast partners in place. It was clear from very early on in the battle for control of the sport that the whole thing would revolve around the BBC.

If it were fought today Eurosport would probably be more important but this was before their blanket coverage of the tour.

The rival tour was announced just before the 2000 China Open in Shenzhen. When I arrived in the pressroom for that event, I was told that, because of my TSN connection, I would be allowed in as long as I promised not to do any work.

I explained that I had essentially been doing this for years so it wouldn’t be a problem.

Precise details of the TSN tour have receded into memory. I seem to recall the World Championship would be in Birmingham. There were something like ten ranking events planned.

But when I visited the TSN head office in Scotland it soon became apparent that actual plans were rather sketchy. Venues hadn’t been booked. Staff hadn’t been hired. Systems hadn’t been put in place.

Needless to say I ignored all of this and at the start of 2001 wrote an ‘explosive’ castigation of the WPBSA’s old fashioned attitudes and processes for the TSN website and almost immediately received a call from its chief executive, who wasn’t happy. He complained that the media were all pro TSN and anti WPBSA. I told him the WPBSA had long given the impression they were anti media so what did he expect?

Propaganda flew out of the two camps on a regular basis. There was more spinning than a Shane Warne masterclass. The rival tour dominated all talk backstage at tournaments. Arguments flared. People fell out. People stormed out. Everyone had an opinion.

Players were now lining up for one side or the other. The WPBSA decided the best way to keep the top players happy was to pay them huge amounts of money. They dressed these up as ‘promotional contracts.’ Fortunes – and it was of course money belonging to the whole membership – was spent essentially to keep certain players on side.

Inevitably, O’Sullivan couldn’t make his mind up. I remember one absurd day when both sides put out a press release saying he was supporting them.

O’Sullivan – a Doyle client remember – eventually went with the WPBSA, a definite blow to TSN.

But the real blow was the BBC’s public support for the status quo. They had similarly stuck by BDO darts when a number of top players joined the PDC and indeed still show the rather sorry BDO Lakeside World Championship to this day.

In other words, they were prepared to still screen 17 days from the Crucible even with a depleted field.

The WPBSA seemed to have won but by issuing new tournament rules many felt were too restrictive they assured themselves a date at the high court where TSN challenged the various diktats, which included rules on logos, whether the WPBSA should control the ranking list, non-sanctioned events and so on.

It was a long, mainly tedious process and when it ended both sides naturally claimed victory.

The judge ruled for the WPBSA on most counts but found that they had abused their dominant position and adopted an unlawful restraint of trade. Each side was left with a seven figure legal bill.

Amazingly, snooker on the table carried on as ever before while all this was going on. It was something of a golden era: the age of O’Sullivan, Williams and John Higgins. Paul Hunter won his first Masters. Most of the public simply ignored the civil war and enjoyed the tournaments.

But the whole affair did damage the game. It put the business world off snooker, saw money wasted and created an at times poisonous atmosphere on the circuit.

Ironically, 110sport did end up getting Internet rights – albeit only for qualifiers – when Ian Doyle’s son, Lee, joined the WPBSA board and the cost involved effectively brought the company to its knees.

As for snooker, it was bruised and battered by the whole affair but has recovered. Most of the enmity has been forgotten now. We’ve all moved on. Barry Hearn’s arrival at the World Snooker helm has stimulated snooker in a major way. The calendar is full.

Compared to how it was before it feels like, well, a kind of rival tour...


wee welsh witch said...

Ah memories, memories.
I do remember the happy day when I was working at Newport on the qualifiers.
Well I was working in the morning and banned in the afternoon!
And who can forget Clive doing the Chicken Walk at Bournemouth!

Ray147 said...

Looking back one of the strangest things CueMasters did was to put a Riley sticker on the butt of all player's cues, visible to all.
Now I know Stephen Hendry did not play with a Riley cue but with a Rex Williams cue.

How they got away with that I just can't figure. I bet Alain Robidoux rues the day because when he took his cue back to the maker to be repaired the sticker was still in evidence and the maker smashed the cue in disgust. Robidoux was never able to find a suitable replacement and had hardly any decent results thereafter.

On a different subject, I wonder if Judd Trump realises that he's achieved a very dubious first today. He's the first snooker player to be mentioned on "Heads Gone!" the mickey-taking feature on Talksport's DRIVE programme. This was due to Trump's loss yesterday, in the Indian Qualifiers, to China's Zhang Anda (ranked No. 76 in the world)

I used to enjoy Trump's exhilirating play but of late he seems to be regressing. It's such a shame because he has so much talent but doesn't seem to be focused a lot of the time. Maybe now's the time to seek some advice because he should have won more than he has.

ANON said...

World Champs in B'ham - now there is an idea - better than taking it to China! Sadly Birmingham City Council is no longer giving kickbacks / free use of the ICC for political events so doubt it will be in the running if World Snooker put the Worlds out to tender.

A lot gets written about this Altium offer but would it really have made that much of a difference? Ok snooker is on the up now but that is mainly due to Ding and Eurosport. It seems highly improbable that Altium would have maintained snooker in the same rude health it was in during the mid 1990s purely by putting up money for events in the UK & Ireland.

jamie brannon said...

I think the BBC were right to stick by the WPBSA on this one as they had the 'real' World Championship and, unlike the darts split, not all the top players were going to join TSN. Their World Championship would have been depleted as well.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't like the way snooker was being run until Hearn came along, but a breakway would have been really bad for the sport, interfering with what Dave rightly claims was a 'golden age' for snooker.

As for the BDO, I think the BBC should put Lakeside out of its misery. The event remains a watchable and fun event, but it shouldn't be masquerading as a World Championship.

However, until about 2005, the standards of two organisations weren't drastically different, with the obvious exception of Phil Taylor.

ANON said...

Kristjan Helgason in the draw for the 6 reds - any idea what has he been doing since the 2000 worlds?