THE NEWS that ITV4 will take over from Sky Sports as host broadcasters of the Shootout confirms them as major players in snooker’s broadcasting landscape.
ITV4 already show the Champion of Champions and World Grand Prix and are likely to be in the running to broadcast some of the new events – the English, Scottish and Irish Opens – coming on to the calendar in 2016/17.
The BBC currently broadcasts the sport’s three biggest tournaments, the World Championship, Masters and UK Championship, under a rights deal which ends in 2017. It will be interesting to see if ITV bid for these events and whether the BBC are prepared to pay more to keep them if it comes to that.
The Shootout was launched in 2011 and attracted an audience for Sky Sports for the final of 172,000. However, this year’s final pulled in only 42,000. This was due, in part, to a switch from a Sunday final to a Friday. It could also be, though, that the novelty value of the event had simply worn off.
The Shootout, won in 2015 by Michael White, features ten minute matches against a shot-clock in front of a raucous – and sometimes boorish – atmosphere in Blackpool, although this season’s venue has not yet been announced.
Players enjoy it because it is a chance to earn significant money - £32,000 to the winner – for a series of short matches and also gives lower ranked players the opportunity to showcase themselves, playing in front of large, enthusiastic audiences.
However, the event is certainly not to everyone’s cup of tea, with some feeling it undermines snooker’s chances of obtaining blue chip sponsorship.
For the record, my own view of the Shootout is that it’s a fun knockabout people are free to either watch or ignore, but that if matches are not close, it can be rather undramatic. Drunks shouting out unfunny remarks does nothing to make it a better watch.
But far more significant than any arguments over the Shootout as a tournament is the clear desire of ITV4 to show more snooker.
Its coverage has been widely lauded with the commentary team of Clive Everton, Neal Foulds and Alan McManus providing an excellent blend of knowledge, insight and humour. Viewing figures for its previous two events were very strong, with an average of 530,000 watching this year’s World Grand Prix final. This compares favourably with ITV4’s coverage of French Open tennis and PDC darts.
And for a channel which broadcasts mainly repeats and films, there is no issue with over-running.
ITV were major players in the snooker TV landscape in the 1980s and early 90s but in this pre-digital age found it harder and harder to schedule and in 1993 dropped the sport. They returned in 1999 to broadcast the Nations Cup and Champions Cup but are now much better placed to provide comprehensive live coverage.
Sky’s snooker future appears much more uncertain. Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis is on record as saying he is not a snooker fan, although it is fair to assume a fair number of its subscribers are. There is no word yet as to whether Sky will broadcast the World Seniors Championship.
This situation is a shame because Sky were pioneering in their snooker coverage in the 1990s but fashions have changed and snooker does not appear to be on their agenda.
ITV4, though, have recognised how popular the sport still is in the UK, with ticket sales up in recent years. If snooker continues to do good business for them it is safe to assume that the Shootout won’t be their last acquisition.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.