It’ll be viewed by many as just another rant, but Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest scathing attack on the snooker powers was on point.
Quotes from a recent interview with the reigning world champion circulated on Monday, and it’s fair to say that he didn’t hold back.
“Snooker is in a bad place,” O’Sullivan candidly said, as reported by Hector Nunns for The Sportsman.
“It’s in trouble. Forget Turkey (the cancelled Turkish Masters), this needs at least another £50 million a year just to make it a proper tour.”
“When you look at the number, it’s bad. When you look at £10 million prize money for 25 events across the year for 128 players, it’s never going to be good.
“It needs at least to triple that to make it work. Maybe you do need some proper people like Liberty (Formula One) or someone with the vision to bring it up to date.
“You look at the people actually managing the game, they are not the brightest sparks either. So you can’t see them digging themselves out of it.
“But you don’t have to be Einstein. It is probably in the worst place it has ever been. The image of the sport, it’s a bit like a pub sport now.
“Look at some of the tournaments. The Shootout. Some of the venues we play at. It’s lost its charm of what it used to be. It’s cheap.
“If they can be honest enough with themselves, maybe the people that run the game need to say: ‘We have taken it as far as we can’.
“If they really have the love of the sport they would hand it over to somebody else that had higher ambitions.”
The 2022/23 campaign has arguably been the worst snooker season in what is commonly referred to as the Barry Hearn era.
The sports promoter took over as the World Snooker Tour chairman in 2010 when the sport was on its knees.
While great strides were made during the first decade of his tenure, including an influx of new tournaments both in the UK and overseas, progress has stagnated in more recent years.
Although still involved behind the scenes, Hearn officially left his position as the chairman in 2021, and there has unequivocally been a regression during the early tenure of his replacement Steve Dawson.
The coronavirus pandemic and an economic downturn obviously didn’t help matters, but the incomprehensible failure to replace the lost Chinese tournaments on the calendar has left a damning impact on the earning potential for competitors on the main tour.
Only 31 of the 130 professional players on the circuit have earned £50,000 or more from ranking events this term so far.
There is still the lucrative World Snooker Championship to come, but contrast that with the 2018/19 season when 62 players earned £50,000 or more.
There is widespread discontent among both players and fans as to how the game is being run and the direction it’s going in.
The calendar has become UK-centric and the schedule is full of tournaments that are open to only a limited number of players.
How can there be no repercussions for those in charge when tournaments – especially international events – are constantly being postponed, cancelled, or not renewed, and then rarely properly replaced?
Events likes the World Mixed Doubles and the Hong Kong Masters, which boasted a record 9,000 fans, serve as handy headline-grabbers, but they do little in terms of supporting the majority on the tour.
The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, led by Jason Ferguson for more than a decade, announced a scheme at the start of the season to grant a guaranteed £20,000 to each player.
Yet that is offset against subsequent prize money earned, and it is a short-term solution to what is an increasingly worrying long-term problem.
O’Sullivan’s opinion that snooker is in its worst ever place is probably recency biased. The situation in 2009/10 was much more dire.
Snooker authorities have generally done well to elevate the sport from those depths of despair, but whether or not they have the capability to move it forward again beyond its current state is increasingly debatable.
These uncertainties are heightened by the ongoing corruption case involving ten banned Chinese players, which is amounting to the biggest match-fixing scandal in the sport’s history.
Just last week, former Northern Ireland Open champion Mark King became the latest player to be suspended pending an investigation into a separate case of irregular betting patterns.
While the players in question are primarily to blame for any breach of the rules, who is being held accountable for the fact that the issue is so widespread within the game?
“It is probably as bad as it has ever been also because of the betting scandal,’ O’Sullivan continued.
“There are a lot of players I know who are really unhappy and frightened to speak out because they will get fined. They are told that.”
Then there are calls from some sections for the professional tour to be cut to as few as 64 players, which would be an absolute disaster in terms of snooker’s global reach.
But when more and more players at the bottom scale of the rankings are failing to earn a proper living, it’s easy to understand why this agenda gains traction.
Cutting the tour is still unlikely to happen – and it shouldn’t happen if the ambition, as it ought to be, is to spread the game globally – but a major shake-up in the structure of the tour and its calendar is required.
A return to the tiered structure of events with more suitably funneled-down prize money may be a solution, as was successfully implemented at this season’s UK Championship.
But that only scratches at the surface of a widespread problem that also includes an uneasy sponsorship marriage with betting firms and a lack of success in staging international tournaments overall.
“The game is struggling, if you look at the numbers it is in a bad way. But we all want good for the game,” O’Sullivan said.
“I can’t do more. I have carried the sport pretty much for the last 20-30 years. It’s not one player. It’s the sport, it’s not a massive sport.
“At Wimbledon it is probably £50 million for the one event. You look at golf, minimum first prize of £1.2million and the top players don’t even turn up for that.
“We are playing for the winner gets £80,000 most weeks and the runner-up gets £35,000. It’s bang in trouble.
“Mark Allen has done well this year, Judd Trump did well a couple of years before that. A few others do alright. But for the rest, there is nothing there.
“A lot of these players are tempted by crumbs. If you give them a few crumbs, they say ‘I will play’. Keep them quiet, keep them on board.
“But the only way to get change is for the players to say we are not playing until you listen to us.
“If you want us to play in this tournament for six days then this is what we expect. This amount of prize money. Two weeks for this amount of prize money.
“Nothing will change until the majority of the players go, you know what, we are not playing.”
Featured photo credit: WST
I believe cutting the tour to 64 would be welcomed by sponsors and broadcasters.
The 64 should be there on merit, rather than the current system of tokenism and the events could feature all 64 at (or near) the main venue and could provide a guaranteed income for all.
The majority of events could be spread across Europe at least and good promotion would enable snooker fans across the world to see their idols up close and personal.
Currently there is little to no local promotion of events.
More effort needs to be made to grow the sport as an enjoyable participation sport and not just something to watch (and hopefully see yourself!) on telly.
The sport needs proper DEVELOPMENT pathways, not just competitions, in order to find the stars of the future.
Simply relegating the lower 64 players would just kill of most of the young players and overseas players, so would certainly cause more damage than good to the future of snooker.
But I don’t completely disagree with you. What we really need is an end to the rigid ‘tour card’ system. There’s no reason it should be set at 128, or 64, or any number. Particularly with lots of players, based around the world. We need flexibility for all sizes of tournaments everywhere.
40% of the professional tour prize money was from China and Thailand tournaments prior to Covid19. That’s mostly disappeared.
Snooker is popular in China, Hong Kong and Thailand, from whence many younger Chinese and Thai players have entered the tour. These countries dwarf the UK and western continental Europe populations. These figures tell you where the audience and many of the emerging players are, where some new tournaments should be located.
The women’s tour has taken encouraging steps forward and particularly Thailand has many emerging professional players. Given the largely untapped world wide female snooker audience it makes sense to develop further the female tour especially in Asia and Australia where recently a tournament was held in Sydney.
A good piece David. What we now need is follow-up: a continued debate looking at new and different ideas. Snooker’s biggest problem is lack of initiative. All sports and entertainment need to continually strive to grow and reach new audiences in the 21st century, otherwise they will just be crowded out. Snooker is indeed in serious trouble with almost all of the famous players reaching the end of their careers. I’ve tried my best, and am still working on some new things on the website, but we need more ideas and opinions from everyone.
I agree with the general sentiment of the article. I would also like to add, I don’t watch the smaller tournaments anymore and am not a fan of the best of 7 format for the home nations tournaments. I also think there are too many small tournaments. The triple crown events, the players and the tour championships and the champion of champions are the only tournaments I’ll watch. I have noticed the biggest box office stars in the game Ronnie O’ Sullivan, Judd Trump, Neil Robertson, John Higgins, Mark Williams, appear to flourish in the longer formats rather than what I call the lucky bag events. Less tournaments with better prize money and snookers brighter stars will rise to the top. A shorter season September to May would also help with proper tournaments all ranked including the Masters and the Champion of Champions. Stop trying to duplicate other global sports without the investment and have a proper players Council. The Barry Hearn model my way or get lost doesn’t work if you truly want to deliver top class tournaments for fans and players alike.
Completely agree with Tony O’Reilly!
Snooker used to be special – now it’s every week, it appears.
Masters and CoC’s should be ranking.
The greatest entertainers should be rewarded.
If you think we’re in trouble now, just wait till they have retired!!