By Fin Ruane
This weekend sees the snooker roadshow move onto Sofia in Bulgaria for the fourth leg of the European PTC series. With two remaining events left to play in Scotland and Germany, the last few places are up for grabs for the Grand Finals in Galway (TBC) next March.
As the World Amateur Championship is also due to be held in Sofia later this month it gives Bulgaria the chance to stake its claim as a regular host country of major snooker events. Indeed this weekend we should see if snooker is as popular in Bulgaria as it is in its neighbouring countries and recent PTC hosting nations of Germany and Poland.
Since the Barry Hearn era began more and more nations such as Bulgaria have been joining the list of nations staging professional snooker events. World Snooker is now very close to the unique achievement of having hosted a snooker event in every snooker playing nation on the planet. From Australia to India, China to Brazil and right across mainland Europe snooker players have left their mark, but one nation still remains to be conquered and, even though it is a global superpower, the United States of America is still an unknown entity when it comes to snooker.
Contrary to popular belief, snooker is actually played in the US and the United States Snooker Association regularly send competitors to the World Amateur Championship but, until it escapes from behind the shadow of nine-ball pool, snooker will continue to struggle to gain the following needed to make an impact in such a massive market.
Unlike its neighbour Canada, which has provided the game of snooker with several wonderful players over the last thirty-five years, the United States has failed to make any real impact in the professional game. Very rarely did the nation’s great pool players try to make the transition to snooker like the famous Canadians such as Cliff Thorburn and Bill Werbenuik. Indeed only two American players did play snooker but that was only in exhibition matches. The great Jim Rempe once beat Eddie Charlton in a pool exhibition match and the late Steve Mizerak managed to beat both Steve Davis and Jimmy White in a snooker exhibition in 1987 – the result all the more amazing when you consider Davis was world champion at the time.
In amateur snooker Tom Kollins has been a long-time stalwart of the association, winning the national title several times and appearing in as many World Amateur Championships before becoming vice-president of their national governing body. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom once and found his appetite and knowledge of the game encouraging. In fact, a few years back when I was in New York I made my way to the New York Athletic Club with a good friend who is a member there and we played a few frames on one of the tables in the club. On the noticeboard was a hand written letter from Tom as vice-president of the American Association asking players and fans to support the upcoming championships that were due to be held in the very club we were playing in. American snooker is lucky to have a man like Tom fighting its corner.
To understand the type of battle Tom and his Association have on their hands you only have to look at the snooker facilities on offer throughout the States. A detailed internet search will only show a few snooker clubs, yet if one was to search for pool then it’s a totally different story. Pool will always be the number one cue sport in the United States as its players are known throughout the world and each enjoy a large fan base whereas their snooker players remain largely unknown.
I find it ironic that two of the most globally used pieces of snooker equipment are produced in and exported from the United States. The Tweeten Company of Chicago, Illinois has provided their famous Elkmaster tips for players both amateur and professional for decades whilst Tweeten has also provided the green Triangle Chalk that must be used by at least 99.9% of snooker players worldwide.
Surely the gamble must be taken by Hearn to at least try to test the snooker water over there. Last season South America had its chance and although the invitation event in Brazil ran smoothly enough question marks were raised over the location and ticket prices. The chances of a return to Brazil are remote for now so perhaps it is time to make a bid on the United States. Travelling may not be much of an issue as players are used to it now and with five trips to China and one to Australia already on the calendar a flight across the Atlantic may not be much of an ask these days. Hearn has already proved with the yearly hosting of the Mosconi Cup that a cue sport event with few players has a following.
Snooker stars are getting used to an element of razzmatazz at every main ranking event now as each player has his own walk on music whilst Sky Sports announcer John McDonald is no stranger to American audiences, not to mention the familiar face of referee Michaela Tabb who has officiated in several US-based Mosconi Cups. All of this can only add more glam to a snooker occasion. A starting idea perhaps would be to try a couple of the Premier League nights over there as the shot clock and the six-frame format may prove popular with the general public who like quick-fire sports. If it proves a hit then a sports networks could maybe screen coverage of the remaining fixtures of the season from the UK.
I think if snooker was to become a future Olympic sport then the idea could gain more momentum in the States as television exposure would increase the awareness of snooker as a sport and in a country of over 300 million people surely there is a snooker talent just waiting to be discovered?
Until then, we can just sit back and watch as snooker continues its rebirth under Hearn across Europe, China and Australia.
Uncle Sam hosting a professional snooker event in the future? Stranger things have happened in our great game.