Another day, another routine Ronnie O’Sullivan win at the Betway UK Championship, and another set of trenchant views aired – this time on the status of snooker relative to other sports, and another omission for the game from the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Following his 6-1 win over Michael Georgiou at York’s Barbican Centre, a victory that saw a first frame dropped in three matches for the five-time winner, O’Sullivan was asked by this correspondent about a record 16-person shortlist for SPOTY with once again no snooker involvement – despite world champion Mark Selby being No1 for 93 weeks in a row.
The system was changed a few years ago, and rather than a straight public vote a panel of the ‘great and good’ picks a shortlist and only then can the public get involved. Arguably the success of darts’ Phil Taylor (you could almost hear some of the howls against this from members of the panel that year) showed what the public might do given the chance.
But O’Sullivan went further than limiting his comments to disdain for the panel’s judgment, with an honest and frank assessment of the issues facing the sport he has played professionally for 25 seasons.
Purely on the SPOTY issue, the failure to put O’Sullivan on the shortlist in 2013 when he won a fifth world title after taking an entire year off was a complete joke and embarrassing for all those who blocked the idea on the panel. The list nowadays has the appearance of being painfully agenda-driven, featuring sportspeople few would recognise or talk about.
And it is a long, long time since Steve Davis featured five times in the top three in the 1980s, including one win, and Stephen Hendry finished second to Paul Gascoigne and his Italy World Cup tears in 1990. Yet snooker still gets TV audiences in the millions others would kill for.
O’Sullivan, more concerned with the general trend than specifically this year, said: “We know how much we get on that show – about 10 seconds? That is how we are seen, that is a complete insult and what they think it warrants. At least I have got my OBE.
“Snooker is now a low sport compared to many other sports – like tennis, golf, F1, Olympics, that are corporate, classy events.
“You look at snooker and it is cheap TV, a filler for other programmes there is so much out there and it has lost its respect.
“We need £1million first prizes, that might happen with China, and it doesn’t get the coverage it should. It is still a great sport, but the image needs to change.
“In F1 you see all these beautiful looking people speaking well and you look at snooker and think ‘God’. For us it is a fiver to get in at Barnsley to watch top players.
“It is like we are the car boot sale, and the other sports are shopping at Harrods. How can we compete, and it affects the people picking the shortlist.
“And I don’t think snooker will ever get on the shortlist again. I wasn’t even surprised when I wasn’t nominated after winning the world title after a year out.”
I have to be honest, as a journalist who so often feels he is banging his heads against a brick wall trying to sell snooker to certain (not all) editors who sneer at the sport, O’Sullivan is in at least one sense also speaking for me on this one.
The game is not respected by many strands of the mainstream media, and it is rapidly becoming a TV sport only, “filling hours” in O’Sullivan’s words.
The Mark King ‘forgetting cue’ story in York was the sort of laughter-inducing tale that should have seen it done big in every newspaper. Only The Sun did it properly, putting it on the back page and creating a panel of other moments featuring forgetful sportspeople.
And it is not just elements of the media that cannot see past this rather lowly image of snooker. Barry Hearn rightly enjoys a reputation of being able to sell snow to eskimoes, but even he has not been able to attract blue-chip, non-bookmaking sponsors for some of the best tournaments.
There will have been comments in O’Sullivan’s stream of consciousness that will have chimed with Hearn, all the times he has come up short after meeting with or calling target non-bookmaking companies and trying to get them to put their name to an event on the calendar. The World Snooker chairman’s expected response on BBC Radio Five Live on Tuesday morning will be fascinating.
Although O’Sullivan’s pot shot at SPOTY will get headlines, arguably his concerns about the image of the sport are far more important and relevant long-term. He is not daft, never has been, and usually in there in the middle of a rant is some perceptive observation.
On the table, world No106 Georgiou said afterwards: “Ronnie is not human - the way he is playing I can’t seeing him getting beaten here.”
O’Sullivan, 40, added: “I could do with a good, tough, close match – a 6-3 or a 6-4. Not human? Maybe I am like Superman! But seriously I just do my best, and I take that as the ultimate compliment from a fellow professional.
“He must appreciate the way I play, and entertain and do it the right way. The only players I came up against in my career I didn’t think were human were Stephen Hendry and John Higgins.
“I think it was Muhammad Ali when asked about his natural talent who said ‘Yeah, I have got natural talent’. But he went on to say ‘I get up at 6am, go in the gym, go for my runs, train for two or three hours at a go, and then do it all again’.
“People use that phrase natural talent but a lot of hard work and discipline goes into it – it can be almost insulting when people say it looks easy. I work as hard as anyone and it isn’t easy.”