As 2016 draws to a close it’s time to reflect on what has been another enthralling year in snooker.
There have been many talking points over the course of the last 12 months both on and off the table.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the best bits from this calendar year, but today let’s focus on some of the low or controversial matters which have dominated the headlines.
No Ken Do
This coming May will be the 20th anniversary of Ken Doherty’s famous 18-12 World Championship victory over then five-time defending champion Stephen Hendry. It was the high point of what was a golden era for Irish snooker. How it’s all gone sour in the last decade.
Doherty and fellow Dubliner Fergal O’Brien, who flew up through the ranks around the same time, have carried the tricolour flag with pride for the the best part of 30 years but there have been plenty of signs to suggest that their time is coming to an end. Doherty, indeed, could bow out upon the conclusion of this campaign, such is his continuous decline down the pecking order.
Unfortunately, there has been very little success from other Irish competitors south of the border in recent times at professional level, with just three currently competing on the Main Tour. One important ray of light is 21 year-old Josh Boileau, winner of the European Under-21 Championship in February and the latest great hope to come out of the Emerald Isle. Yet, a lot of expectation is – perhaps unfairly – weighed down on his young shoulders and his professional tenure has not got off to a strong start.
With Doherty’s demise imminent, which of course has been inevitable as age and time has caught up with him, it’s hard to envisage where the next Irish world champion is hiding. There have been some improvements lately in the development of the amateur and junior games in Ireland but RIBSA remains a withered regime which could do with a breath of fresh air.
The sorry fact is that in the not so distant future there is a distinct possibility of there being no players from the Republic, a traditional powerhouse of the sport, competing on the Main Tour.
This is revisiting one of the five lows I chose last year because simply not much has changed in that time.
There is no disputing the fact that the influx of new tournaments has done wonders for the sport in the last five or six years, taking it to farther reaches and generating more money at the top. Neither does anyone question the difficulty involved in meeting promoters’ demands and the complicated intricacies of conducting a schedule.
However, it defies belief that a season would start a mere three weeks after the previous one has ended when so many of the following weeks and months lay barren of activity. Gaps in competition were common right throughout the summer, which ensured that the opening few scattered ranking events largely went unnoticed.
Some may argue that existing contracts were in place but that wasn’t the case for the returning World and Indian Opens. Surely more effort could have been made to fit these events into a slightly later slot, potentially offering the players – and indeed the majority of fans – a lengthier off season.
There are numerous issues with formulating a schedule, not to forget allowing players enough time to obtain visas and make plans for tournaments abroad, but there must be a better solution to the disjointed calendar at present.
Struggling to Survive
There has been a lot of debate this year surrounding the tour structure and the players ranked outside the top 64 in the world rankings who are barely making a living. So much so that the BBC even ran a feature on the subject during the UK Championship in York.
Several players at the bottom of the pecking order desire better opportunities to earn money and develop a career. On the other hand, the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby believe that, at 128, the circuit is open to too many people and that the tour should be cut to ensure that only the best players compete.
Throughout all of this, World Snooker supremo Barry Hearn has maintained his usual philosophy of rewarding those on a basis of meritocracy.
It’s a tricky subject with no clear answer. If the tour is cut there is a risk that all the good that has been achieved over the last number of years in bringing the sport all around the world could be undone. Yet, staying as it is will increase the number of struggling cueists going flat broke or even into debt.
There are definitely some merits to the argument in favour of the higher seeds coming into events beyond the first round, which is the case for most ranking events as things stand. For those at the top it would reward their success, while the players in the opposite spectrum would then get the chance to, in theory, face an easier opponent in the early stages.
It’s unlikely any of this will come to pass, though.
The announcement by Barry Hearn of the 10-year deal with Eurosport was hailed as a huge success during this year’s World Championship. It cemented what was already a strong relationship with the large continental sports broadcaster, which has done a significant amount in the last decade to extend snooker’s reach to millions of new homes.
Yet, there was immediate disappointment when, during the first events of the 2016/17 season, there was no live coverage on the television service and the Eurosport Player failed to work properly. Teething problems can be forgiven but when there was so much hullabaloo made about the deal it was pretty amateurish for it not to be in force properly from the beginning.
In time, those problems were ironed out but remaining is the disappointment of a lack of commentary during matches which are streamed solely on the Player. This might suit some who become irritated by commentary teams but, for the majority of viewers, hearing these voices providing insight into a live game is part of the all-inclusive package of sports entertainment.
In the long run the 10-year contract with Eurosport will be a resounding success of course, and the increased presence of a studio team has worked a charm during events. But if some tournaments are going to be banished to the Player then more needs to be done to provide a closer to perfect service.
The Shoot-Out a Ranking Event?
This matter could easily fall into the category of this year and next. The upgrade of the surviving European Tour events, which are run from start to finish on a best of seven format, to full ranking status was one thing.
The decision to make the single frame Shoot-Out a tournament which carries ranking points was quite another.
In reference to the point above about the players who struggle to survive, perhaps the randomness of the Shoot-Out gives those at the bottom a timely boost, an opportunity to hold their own against the big guns and progress far, thus earning vital ranking points.
Robin Hull’s triumph last season provided him with £32,000 which, if added to his current ranking tally, is the difference between him hovering around the top 50 mark and challenging for a spot in the top 32.
However, attributing this level of prestige to the Shoot-Out makes a complete mockery out of the entire ranking system. If a player who has never won a ranking event wins the Shoot-Out in February, how can that translate as being equal to, say, Matthew Stevens’ sole ranking success at the UK Championship in 2003?
It doesn’t, and it can’t. But sadly, it will.
The Shoot-Out is a fun event and rightly has its place on the calendar as offering something different to the norm, but without even boasting the same rules as the traditional game, it’s a mystery how this decision was ever allowed to pass.