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Razzmatazz or bust for snooker?

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Ben Dirs | 08:40 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

One minute Mark Selby's baulking at the idea of taking snooker players out of waistcoats and dickie bows, the next he's saying he'd be up for entering the arena dressed as a jester. The mere mention of Barry Hearn and all of a sudden the possibilities are endless.

For the sake of the sport's self-respect, let's hope the Masters champion isn't asked to dig out the jingle-belled hat and floppy shoes any time soon. But it is a sign of the enormous belief in snooker's new boss that Selby is willing to entertain doing something quite so daft. As Selby told BBC Sport: "I love the game and I'll do whatever I have to do to."

Hearn, who took over as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) last December, has been backed to the hilt by a raft of snooker's biggest stars, many of whom had been driven to distraction by the previous regime.

Two-time world champion Mark Williams said Hearn should be allowed to do "whatever he wants", while the sport's biggest draw Ronnie O'Sullivan has spoken of his "blind faith" in the man who pulled off the seemingly impossible and sexed up darts. Meet the new boss, snooker's heavyweights seem to be saying, he's nothing like the old boss.

Mark Selby is seeking his first world titleSelby is excited by Hearn's plans for the future

"How he's turned around darts has been fantastic," said Selby, who kicks off his World Snooker Championship on Saturday with a nasty little first-round tie against 1997 champion Ken Doherty. "If you'd have told me seven or eight years ago that darts would be bigger than snooker I'd have laughed at you. But look at it now, it's one of the biggest sports on TV."

There are those, including seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry, who believe going down the darts route would be "a backward step": "If that's what we've got to do," said the Scot last year, "let people in drinking and shouting and bawling, then it's a sad state."

But others believe it's because snooker is in a sad state already - "a downward spiral," according to O'Sullivan - that drastic alterations need to be made.

"Something needs to change, we need to liven it up a bit more," says Selby, whose entrance music at the Crucible will be Underdog by his fellow Leicesterites Kasabian. "If I was paying 20 quid to watch snooker I wouldn't want to just sit there and not be able to talk or do anything, I'd want entertainment and value for money.

"When you pay 20 quid to watch the darts, you walk away and think 'I've really enjoyed it, I've had a great night'. But with snooker at the moment, 70% of the time you're not getting that."

While only 41, Hendry is from a different generation to the 26-year-old Selby, a product of snooker's gilded age. Back when the 'Golden Boy' started his professional career as a pallid, spike-haired teenager in the mid-1980s, playing the game extremely slowly or being somewhat overweight was enough to qualify you as a 'character'. And up to 18 million people used to watch Cannon and Ball, so you really have to wonder what was on the other side.

Some argue Hendry inadvertently lessened snooker's appeal by being so damn good: all of a sudden dressing like Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever or nutting referees seemed a little bit anachronistic in snooker's super-professional, super-sanitised new age. "Yeh, I know the standard's better than it's ever been," went the refrain, "but what happened to the fat lad who split his trousers? My nan used to like him..."

The truth, as always, is rather more complicated. Type 'snooker club' and 'closed/closes/closure' into Google, and the headlines alone tell the story of the sport's struggle for survival at the grassroots level. And at the elite end, events have dwindled (last year Selby called himself a "part-time professional"), sponsorship has become more difficult to come by (the ban on tobacco advertising hit the sport hard) and prize money has stagnated.

But while snooker's viewing figures have dropped off markedly since their peak in 1985, when 18.5m tuned in at gone midnight to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black, they're still pretty robust: when Selby played John Higgins in the World Championship final in 2007, the audience peaked at more than 8m.

Furthermore, an estimated 100m Chinese fans watched Ding Junhui play compatriot Liang Wenbo in last year's first round, so Hearn may be correct in his assertion that "the patient is not dead, it just needs waking up". It could just be that, like a comatose groom on a stag do, snooker comes to its senses in an entirely different country.

"The viewing figures are still great, which tells me it's still popular with the general public," says Selby, the world number seven. "But from what I've experienced over the last two years, in the UK snooker seems to be dying [at the grassroots level], a lot of the clubs are closing down.

"I'd say Europe has overtaken the UK as far as popularity goes. In Europe it's booming, it seems to be the place to be. Whether I'm playing in Russia, Germany or Poland, it's absolutely huge. You get 1-2,000 people watching a pro-am tournament, so God knows how many people you'd get turn up if you had a ranking tournament with the likes of O'Sullivan, Higgins and Hendry."

There will indeed be a ranking event in Berlin next year, while Hearn's other plans include increased prize money and more tournaments, with a 12-event Player Tour Championship culminating in a 24-man Players' Championship and a pro-am World Open, which would replace the existing Grand Prix.

Other proposals include a single-frame, on-the-clock event, a two-week qualifying school (which would do away with the bizarre system whereby players have to qualify for marquee events by travelling to Pontin's holiday camp in Prestatyn - not ideal if you live in Beijing, or anywhere else apart from Prestatyn) and the involvement of other broadcasters besides the BBC.

Players will get to vote on Hearn's blueprint on 5 May, and the noises emanating from the top-ranked players suggest it has every chance of being passed. Reject the proposals and Hearn says he'll resign. It's razzmatazz or bust time for snooker - he's got the Jester's vote, let's hope his colleagues can see past the end of their cues.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at http://twitter.com/bendirs1

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    There is nothing wrong with Hearn's proposals, but there is also nothing there that has to have him around to implement. He's asking for 51% of snooker for his ideas!

  • Comment number 2.

    The forces of reaction vs. the forces of reform...this one could go either way. Difficult to see how snooker could be 'sexed up' like darts and Hendry does have a point. However, it would take a brave man to bet against Hearn to pull it off. How about snooker players in leotards? Stephen Lee could really sex snooker up if that was put on the table!

  • Comment number 3.

    I suggest Page 3 models as referees. Has anyone got Barry's number?

  • Comment number 4.

    Rather than saying yes or no to all reforms, which is what the players are being forced to do, I think they should be considered individually, on their merits. For example: Walk-on music changes nothing about the game, and if it creates more excitement for some people, then let's have it. But to "let people in drinking and shouting and bawling" would be horrendous, and I would be far less likely to watch any snooker on television if that happened. Or at least without muting the sound.

    I also happen to think that waistcoats are very sexy!

  • Comment number 5.

    As long as the World Championship and Masters remain the pinnacle of the sport and are not drawn into the razzamataz (shot clocks aside), then it would be worth watching a one-frame, timed (15 second shot clocks and a 15 minute frame limit) tournament that could well be all done in a couple of hours which is perfect for television. At such an event, the players could have microphones which will allow more interaction with the viewers and interviews at the table-side to get rid of the silent, sterile atmosphere that normally surrounds the game. Add to that a relaxed dress code, some younger presenters and you have a chance for the game to break its stuffy image and perhaps appeal to a wider audience.

  • Comment number 6.

    The forces of reaction vs. the forces of reform...this one could go either way. Difficult to see how snooker could be 'sexed up' like darts
    -----------

    Therein lies the problem. People are so thick as to think that because Hearn did that for darts he will go the same route blindly for snooker.

    Hearn is a VERY successful businessman and promoter, he is no one trick pony who thinks that adding alcohol and a few models can fix anything. He weighe up lots of options for darts, including numerous concepts that were tried and didn't catch on before going down the current path. He will do the same for snooker, he will find a way to increase the enjoyment and interest while keeping what is the essence of the sport.

    Whether that means less reds, shorter matches, multiple matches in one day (one of my favourites, two matches with the winners facing off in the evening), pairs events or whatever.

  • Comment number 7.

    Seem to remember ITV trying to get involved with snnoker with some weird idea in the late 80's and 90's with "Razmataz".....and also i believe the was an idea called "super-snooker" which had an orange ball worth 8 (?) placed in between the pink and blue spot...

    For me,like the great british pub,snooker is a victim of our age i mean the cause is the smoking ban = empty pubs and snooker clubs....no tobacco adverts = reduced revenue in the game less people playing..

    Darts is easier to liven up in my opinion...slightly less skill involved = audience participation can be increased..

    Am afraid snooker...like its for runner billiards will be RiP in 10 years which is a shame

  • Comment number 8.

    dawolf - "There is nothing wrong with Hearn's proposals, but there is also nothing there that has to have him around to implement. He's asking for 51% of snooker for his ideas!" With the greatest respect, of course, that's more than a little bit naive. Having ideas is only one, actually rather small, part of the package. Implementing those ideas is what Hearn is great at. As Frank Warren likes to point out (and he's right, whether you're a Warren fan or not), everyone thinks they can promote, but it's not as easy as all that - just ask Joe Calzaghe.

    Estesark - To you it would be horrendous, but others might like it. Selby himself told me he wouldn't be averse to playing with a bit of a racket going on in the background. I think Hearn will try it out along the way, whatever people think about it.

    STEEVO - I share your concerns about snooker clubs, and from what I hear, it's the smoking ban that's done most damage. In the UK snooker is insperable from booze, fags and dingy halls, but perhaps in other countries the game will evolve differently, in more pristine environs, not a pack of B&H in sight?

  • Comment number 9.

    John Virgo epitomises everything that is bad about snooker at the moment - a dull, bland, grumpy old man. This impending change is crucial if the sport wants to attract new followers and engage better with existing fans. Even Ken Doherty on the beeb wrecks my head (and I'm an Irishman).
    Yes, it's gonna be a fine line for Hearn but I really hope he gets it spot on. It could transform things 100 fold.
    As for the game itself, it's one of the classics. I'll love it change or no change. But for the sake of evolving, it's gotta be worth a try, hasn't it?

  • Comment number 10.

    barry hearn has been brilliant for Darts.

    But with snooker.. you can't polish a t...

  • Comment number 11.

    But its these dingy halls that are the breeding ground of characters....snooker was at its most popular when it was literally littred with extreme charcters...."Big Bill Weburnick" who had to have 16 pints during a game.....to Alex "Hurricane" Higgins who will astound with a century break...a few voddies and (allegedly) nut the official on route home...to interesting Davis and steady Eddie Charlton or The Grinder Thorbourne or indeed "galeforce Griffiths".....Jimmy "Whirlwind" White or the dashing Kirk Stevens were also household names...

    "Prestine enviroments" will give us more of your John Higgins or Peter Ebdon types who are no doubt better than the characters.....but a bit of a switch off imo

  • Comment number 12.

    10....but you can roll it in glitter!

  • Comment number 13.

    STEEVO - Alas, those days are gone, not just in snooker, in all sports. 'Characters' and top-level pro sport just don't mix. And anyway, hwo many of those players you mention were actually 'characters'? How much of a 'character' was Bill Werbeniuk, or was he just large and drank a lot? Was Davis a character? Eddie Charlton? Griffiths? No, not really, they were actually quite dull, but snooker back then did a very good job of marketing them and building up cults around each player, so that now when we look back we imagine every frame of snooker involved someone rocking up and doing impressions of other players, a punch-up between the Hurricane and a referee and Werbeniuk's strides splitting.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ben, yes, everyone will have their own opinion, and I was just voicing mine. Can I ask what yours is?

    Mr Hearn will have to bear in mind that for all the new fans they might gain, they will lose some old fans too.

  • Comment number 15.

    Is it not enough that you cannot pronounce his name properly you just decide to change the spelling "Ken Docherty". Lazy. If I was Ken sitting in the BBC studio and someone repeatably mispronounced my name (15+ years this has being going on) I would grab a cue and it wouldn't be snooker balls i'd hit.

    There is no "c" in Doherty, never has been.

  • Comment number 16.

    Yep good call about the marketing but those dull players,well they were characters in not being a character.....if you see my meaning..

    I suppose its like watching Life on Mars and Sweeney etc and thinking how good life was then compared with now....rose tinted specs syndrome i suspect for some but i do really feel that life was less complicated then...must be my age eh?

    What it boils down to really is that "back in the day" live sport was at a premium on only the 3 or 4 channels we had..so an afternoons live snooker was a real treat...

    These days? well we're just spoilt aren't we?

    Now we are sa

  • Comment number 17.

    conor - Sorry about that Conor, I've just changed it. I blame the people in the BBC studio...

    Estesark - Yes, I know you were just voicing your opinion, I was just pointing out that others will disagree. I think it's a case of innovate or die, and if you lose a few older or more traditional fans along the way, that's a sacrifice Hearn might have to make. Sports that stand still wither and get trampled on and grown over by more forward-thinking sports, it's that simple. Darts stands as the greatest monument to how you can turn a sport's fortunes around. If Hearn hadn't have come along, I strongly suspect darts might be on its last legs by now. Snooker fans should remember that before they start complaining about their sport being made "vulgar" and "cheap" or whatever else.

    STEEVO - Yep, I agree, we are spoilt. My dad forced me to watch the last 15 minutes of Minder the other night, and I was struck, and a little bit irritated, by how dated it was. If I hadn't seen it, though, I might still be telling everyone how great Minder is. Now I might say instead that Minder was very good for its time...

  • Comment number 18.

    "forced to watch Minder"......


    Deary me......

    I'll get me coat!!

  • Comment number 19.

    STEEVO - Haha! Reading that back, I admit that sounded a bit weird. When I say he forced my to watch Minder, he didn't hit me over the head with a metal bar, stick an orange in my mouth and gaffa tape me to a chair, he just wouldn't turn the TV over when I popped in for dinner.

  • Comment number 20.

    In life there are certain things that are an honour...

    you know....skinful on a Saturday afternoon....
    Fish and chips on Friday's
    Getting a tenner on the lotto when skint AND

    Watching Minder...Sweeney...Profesionals....(gawd bless ITV 4!!)

    Have 200 lines "i will not diss 70's/80's programes again! :-)

  • Comment number 21.

    You mean there's stuff on ITV4 that isn't IPL? Crazy!

    Something has to give in order that snooker survives. Looking at the success of T20 cricket, and the fact that it works in tandem with test cricket, something similar could work in snooker.

    Keep some of the tournaments (EG Crucible, Masters) as pretty serious, 'as long as they need' matches, then create or modify some that may be noisier, and faster.

    At the end of the day, if snooker doesn't try to evolve (or revolve) it could be dead in the water sooner than we all hope...

    Now, who's playing in the IPL today?

  • Comment number 22.

    The game is great but they also need a 20 20 version in place of some of the tounaments, its made cricket interesting. games can be too long. Perhaps a whole tournament in a day with one frame matches or put a short time limit on shots with penalty points for exceeding the time going up every 5 seconds

  • Comment number 23.

    '' As long as the World Championship and Masters remain the pinnacle of the sport and are not drawn into the razzamataz (shot clocks aside), then it would be worth watching a one-frame, timed (15 second shot clocks and a 15 minute frame limit) tournament that could well be all done in a couple of hours which is perfect for television. At such an event, the players could have microphones which will allow more interaction with the viewers and interviews at the table-side to get rid of the silent, sterile atmosphere that normally surrounds the game. Add to that a relaxed dress code, some younger presenters and you have a chance for the game to break its stuffy image and perhaps appeal to a wider audience.''

    +1

    Good stuff garfy. Snooker has the potential to be a great sport. I think also the likes of John Virgo and Willie Throrne need to be kicked out the commentary box - we should get someone like Jim Watt in there.

    PS Ben, you are the gem in the BBC blogging team. Whether boxing or any other sport your articles are always a great read. You should coach one or two of your other colleagues.

  • Comment number 24.

    Why not make snooker a contact sport?

  • Comment number 25.

    Can we have boxing-style ring card girls, who would saunter into the arena, scantily-dressed and displaying the frame number? I think it would work!

  • Comment number 26.

    My main concern is that this could be a little short sighted.

    Having a darts atmosphere in snooker might add a million or two to the UK ratings, but I'm not sure how well it would go down abroad. Britain's 'lager louts' don't have the best of international reputations, and darts could slightly remind foreign viewers of that stereotype.

    Gaining a few million UK viewers might hold of snooker's death for a few more years - but the 100 million (and increasing) Chinese and European fans are where its future lies.

    Snooker just needs to embrace its international support. They've already got the fans - they just need to actually go out and meet them.

  • Comment number 27.

    "If I was paying 20 quid to watch snooker I wouldn't want to just sit there and not be able to talk or do anything, I'd want entertainment and value for money."

    Selby may be a fine player, but he understands little about the appeal of the game to people who, y'know, actually like (and love) it already.

    The silent, pin-drop atmosphere is the very thing that helps give snooker that unbearable (and wonderful) tension. Take that away (by introducing a raucous darts-like atmosphere) and you lose a major part of the magic. The spell is broken.

    The game is a beautiful thing just as it is. The problems (and there are many) seem to be largely a matter of years of bureaucratic incompetence and missed opportunities,. Things that simple effective management could sort out. No need to radically reinvent the wheel.

  • Comment number 28.

    Conor Message 15

    Excellent Point........

    Now that Ken Doherty is part of the BBC Production team.

    Then HAZEL Ask HIM on air how to pronounce his surname , and make ALL the commentators listen to a copy of the tape/Dvd.

    Then we can hear the same pronunciation throughput ALL snooker matches.

  • Comment number 29.

    On another note there is talk about a 6 Reds only starting game

    And also talk about a snooker league

  • Comment number 30.

    Soon after starting to watch the present snooker Masters I heard a "smacking" noise rather like an angry player banging the butt of his cue on the floor. However this continued with great frequency and I found it extremely annoying - whatever it is! It reminds me of the venue (last year?) where helicopters kept landing on the roof. Is it beyond the BBC to check out noises which intrude into the normal relaxed atmosphere of the viewer in his armchair listening to the relaxing tones of John Virgo and Co ... "Where's the white going ...?"

 

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