If snooker is to thrive and even survive in a fiercely competitive sporting marketplace there has to be a rethink over fining players for relatively innocent comments.
Over the past few years, fuelled by the rise of social media, the WPBSA have leapt on a large number of professionals for views expressed in various forums on a number of topics.
These interventions are currently being described as “rife” and include but are not restricted to criticisms of tables, balls and cloth at tournaments.
The result of this policy is confusion. Players are no longer sure what they can and can’t say. The safe option is therefore to say nothing, but this is the path to ruin and those at the WPBSA should know it.
At a time when - and trust me when I say this – sports editors at newspapers, on radio and on TV need more convincing than ever to feature snooker outside any live coverage, the authorities are shooting themselves in the foot. They are shackling and inhibiting their assets, the players, when those shackles need to be cast off.
World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn has urged players in public and in private session to give more of themselves and show their character – even create personas for themselves.
In this he is absolutely right. Unless snooker wants to be an inward-looking, parochial and small-time concern, it must appeal to an audience outside the diehards.
In that way the pie becomes bigger for everyone, individuals are more marketable, there is more money and sponsors and the mainstream media are more interested.
But Hearn and Head of Media Ivan Hirschowitz are being let down by people inside the organisations, especially those involved on the disciplinary side. Snooker has to be big enough and thick-skinned enough to take reasonable levels of criticism of the way the game is run, and its leaders, on the chin.
Fine and ban someone for fixing a match. Fine and/or ban them for punching an opponent, walking out of a high-profile match, or bad cases of swearing especially on live TV when kids might be watching. If a player libels a person or organisation, they can expect consequences.
But do not fine them for criticising playing conditions simply because the official suppliers might get upset. As one leading player said to me recently, “if the relationship is that weak it can’t survive such a comment, maybe it isn’t very good”. The players are the experts, after all, even if some might use it as an excuse after a disappointing defeat.
There have been cases of players being warned and/or fined for banging the table after missing a shot having been encouraged by Hearn to be themselves at the table. There have been numerous cases of players warned and/or fined for comments on Twitter.
More controversially the WPBSA got involved recently for comments on a player’s private Facebook page. Another top player has spoken to me in mocking terms about the vast amount of time and effort spent by the WPBSA on such investigations.
There appears to be a high degree of complacency towards media coverage from apparatchiks so immersed in the snooker bubble that they cannot see the wood for the trees.
The players on the table are getting the job done. They are playing the game to a high standard, and producing matches and tournaments worthy of the sport. The vast majority go way beyond contractual obligations to help promote snooker. But coverage on radio and in the newspapers in the UK is falling. Even the BBC web site could do much more.
Overseas in one of the so-called boom markets, in Germany snooker struggles to get into the mainstream media.
Blogs do a great job of offering more and deeper coverage of their beloved sport to the aficionados than is available elsewhere, but they don’t change hearts and minds of the casual sports fan and they generally don’t attract large new sponsors. One big piece that connects to millions can do that.
And for all those players young and old who want a living from snooker, it needs sponsors badly, especially non-gambling and gaming sponsors paying full rate. The equation is simple. More people interested and talking about snooker equals a bigger target market for them.
The WPBSA is partly responsible for the widespread if very unfair perception that ‘there are no characters these days’. They are fining the character out of players, at precisely a time when new heroes are needed.
If snooker wants to head down a publicity cul-de-sac with all the undesirable consequences that might follow, it should carry on as it is. If not, then a rethink is required as a matter of urgency. Disrepute charges, thrown around like confetti, are themselves in disrepute.
There is also a strange paradox that certain players are escaping proper censure for behaviour that appears to be far more deserving of meaningful penalty on an ambassadorial level – but more on that soon, with the WPBSA again very much in the firing line.
The bigger issue is that if most leading players are so confused about what they can and can’t say without being hit in the pocket they would rather say nothing of real interest, something that clearly harms the long-term future of the sport, then the current disciplinary approach is deeply flawed.