BARRY HEARN, that master of publicity, picked the worst day of the Betfred World Championship media-wise to unveil his new five-year plan for snooker, coming as it did as Ronnie O’Sullivan exited the Crucible and the respective semi-finalists made their way into the last four.
So there wasn’t huge exposure for Hearn’s raft of announcements, which come at the end of his original five-year plan which took effect when he claimed the reins of World Snooker Ltd in 2010.
Let’s remind ourselves how we got to here. The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association was formed as the sport’s governing body when the professional game grew legs. It was an old boys’ club and its members decided who could join and thus play as a professional.
Mike Watterson had the vision to promote the game in innovative ways, bringing the World Championship to the Crucible in 1977, but the players always felt they knew best and, in the first of many bad decisions, got rid of him.
It didn’t seem to matter so much in the 1980s when snooker reigned in the land of milk and honey. Sponsorship money, particularly but not exclusively from tobacco companies, and television rights fees helped build a vibrant circuit. The good times rolled. But honeymoons don’t last forever.
Tobacco money was eventually outlawed and general instability brought on by the WPBSA’s curious structure of competing parts – promoters, members’ club and rules keepers – led to a gradual collapsing in of the governing body and therefore the sport.
We were down to six ranking events and a general feeling of doom hung in the air. Enter Hearn.
His influence was immediate. He put on several more events both big and small, got everyone playing regularly and increased the prize money. World Snooker has paid out £12m more than they guaranteed in the five years since Hearn took over.
A key element of the expansion was to make the circuit more global. There were additional ranking events in China, one in Germany and the European Tour visited various outposts, including Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia and Portugal. The idea was to test the level of interest and try and build up bigger tournaments over time.
But this week’s announcement suggests this experiment has not been a success. New events have been announced but they are to be played in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – in other words back in the game’s traditional UK base.
It wasn’t specifically stated but it seems the European Tour will be phased out with the various locations instead competing to stage the new European Open, which will move venues year on year.
The European events lose money and there comes a point where such losses cannot be justified. World Snooker has tried hard to obtain a big sponsor in Europe but despite Eurosport’s blanket coverage and genuine interest among fans, the sport is not yet at the level on the continent to attract serious money.
China is also seeing a shift within cue sports away from snooker towards eight-ball pool. From five ranking Chinese ranking tournaments we are down to three, plus the new World Cup and Asian Tour events.
Talks are still ongoing for an event in the Middle East, and India remains on the calendar, but it appears World Snooker’s great global ambitions have had a bit of a reality check.
What it all proves is that things can change quickly. Hearn, all throughout his career, has spotted the way the wind is blowing faster than most.
He deserves great credit for his energy, the way he generates ideas and the way he leads from the front. The World Snooker team is not under-worked and have themselves had to adapt to the changing times.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Hearn is a credible figure to lead the sport, especially when it comes to negotiating with broadcasters and sponsors. He brought ITV back into snooker, has Sky Sports on board, albeit with novelty events, and is running the sport as it should be run: like a business, not a boys’ club.
Certainly he deserves more gratitude than some in the sport with very short memories have given him.
But not everything he has done in his five years in charge has been a success. The jury is still out on the flat draws, which seem to value quantity over quality, squeezing in as many tables and players as a venue will, or in some cases will not, allow. Some ranking tournaments have them and some do not, so the playing field is not level.
Players are told they need to be characters but are then threatened with fines for even minor breaches of the rules.
They are also saddled with eye-watering expenses, which accrue throughout the course of the season. Not everyone can win the big prizes and while sport should be the survival of the fittest, the distribution lower down is harsh – at the World Championship losers in the first round of qualifying got nothing while the prize in the second round was £6,000.
Many players have done extremely well financially from this new era and the top players are set to do even better, with prize money due to rise to £10m. Significantly, the world champion will receive a headline-grabbing £500,000 within three years.
It is believed the plan for the UK series of Welsh, English, Scottish and Irish Opens is that there be a £1m bonus if a player wins all four – very unlikely but a tempting carrot to dangle.
Hearn is genuine in wanting to keep the World Championship as both a long form event and at the Crucible. Both will depend on the BBC and Sheffield city council.
As ever, though, he will have to be responsive to the market place. It’s hard to predict what the world’s view of snooker will be five years from now. Some of its current stars will be on the way out and there isn’t the rash of younger players coming through at the rate there once was.
But what nobody can deny is that Hearn has created an era of opportunity. Just look at Stuart Bingham. Five years ago, he was essentially a journeyman professional: good but not considered exceptional.
He, like several others, has grasped the chances given to the players with both hands and at the time of writing is leading a World Championship semi-final, having won a bunch of trophies these last few years.
Despite cultural snobbery and the sneers of those who point to its lack of physicality, snooker manages to punch above its weight. It remains a television attraction around the world and its governing body is no longer ridden with infighting.
But as it goes into this next five-year cycle it does so without any guarantees for its future, which will depend on television contracts driven by viewer interest. If snooker remains box office, snooker will remain an important part of the sporting landscape. For this to happen, Hearn knows it must not sit still and be immune to change as it looks to 2020 and beyond.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.