Remember the days when the World Championship was sponsored by Embassy and the Masters was otherwise know as the Benson & Hedges?
The tobacco industry and the snooker tour was once synonymous with one another, with the branding of various tobacco brands commonplace at several tournaments on the calendar.
In fact, such was the support from the likes of Embassy, Benson & Hedges, and Regal, that the tour relied heavily on the advertisement of tobacco to simply exist – with a reputed 70% of the tour’s revenue in the 1990s generated from the industry.
Despite being granted a fortuitous three-year extension by the British government to phase out snooker’s association after a blanket ban on tobacco advertising in sport came into effect, snooker lost the majority of its heaviest backers by the mid-noughties.
Thus began the most depressing period in the sport’s history – in the modern era at least – as tournaments folded, the money ran dry, and the professional circuit had a part-timers feeling to it.
Fast forward a mere decade and snooker finds itself thriving under the prosperity of Barry Hearn’s leadership, which in a short space of time has injected millions of pounds into the game.
After only eight years at the helm, Hearn has successfully led snooker’s revolution, transforming a sport on its deathbed into a thriving industry again that delivers weekly entertainment into millions of homes around the world.
However, at what risk?
Snooker is once again at the mercy of a controversial industry and this week’s announcement of a UK television ban on gambling adverts should fire a further warning shot at Hearn to be wary of the potential perils that lie ahead.
During the 2017/18 campaign, a staggering twelve out of the 20 ranking events on the calendar were sponsored by betting companies.
Add to that the prestigious Masters, which was financed by Dafabet, and the 118BET Champion of Champions, and one begins to realise the dependence the sport once more has on a single trade.
The ongoing UK Championship in York is being sponsored by Betway and the sport’s blue riband World Championship has been fronted by Betfred for the last four seasons.
There is no immediate danger as the ban, voluntarily agreed to by the most prominent betting companies, only translates to adverts on TV during live broadcasts of sports events.
That means that the likes of the hoardings and banners that are usual additions to snooker venues, as well as the badges that can be regularly seen on the waistcoats of players, will avoid regulation.
Yet, for how long?
There is no pressing plan to set legislation to fully oppose gambling sponsorship in sport but it seems like only a matter of time before a serious motion is put in place and the various anti-gambling associations put extra pressure on the UK government.
Jeremy Wright – Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK – was one of the first to applaud the change.
“Gambling firms banning advertising on TV during live sport is a welcome move and I am pleased that the sector is stepping up and responding to public concerns.”
“It is vital children and vulnerable people are protected from the threat of gambling related harm. Companies must be socially responsible.”
If this initial ban were to escalate into something more widespread, snooker could find itself in a seriously vulnerable position.
World Snooker supremo Hearn is the king of spin and, following one of his regular public spats with Ronnie O’Sullivan in November, rightly pointed to the increased riches that he has fed to the sport since his tenure began.
“Our overall prize money has grown from £3.5 million to £15 million within the past decade, and there are more and more players earning a good wage.”
“In our current rankings there are 56 players who have earned £100,000 or more from ranking events within the past two years, whereas at the end of the 2015/16 season that figure was just 33.
“We are extremely ambitious in our plans to grow the sport further and create more opportunities for every player on our tour.”
There’s no doubting the impressive outlook but, with a huge chunk of that £15 million funded by betting companies, where is the safety net if the existing laws suddenly change?
There’s a certain amount of truth to the saying that you can have too much of a good thing.
Snooker already learned that the hard way and should think twice before sustaining a present addiction that could eventually lead to lightning striking twice.