Player mutiny, a sport in turmoil, the prospect of a major boycott.
These are just a few ways to describe the storm that’s currently brewing on the World Snooker Tour.
A situation that has the potential to boil over is reaching its simmering point, with tensions escalating on more than one side.
On Tuesday, the World Snooker Tour (WST) released an eyebrow-raising statement in which it attacked its own players, throwing a jab in at snooker media in the process.
But first, let’s go back a few days.
Over the weekend, it became clear through various sources that two high-profile and lucrative events are to be staged later this month in Shanghai and Macau.
The unsanctioned events clash with tournaments already scheduled on the WST calendar.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Mark Williams, Ding Junhui, and Jack Lisowski are set to compete at the Shanghai event between October 17th and 19th.
These dates coincide with the Northern Ireland Open qualifiers, but as members of the top 16 their preliminary-round fixtures will be held over to the venue stages of that ranking event anyway.
What’s more pertinent is the Macau Snooker Masters being held a week later.
Reigning world snooker champion Luca Brecel, four-time Crucible winners Mark Selby and John Higgins, and former ranking event champions Ali Carter and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh are involved.
With the quintet featuring in Macau, it means their guaranteed non-entry to the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast.
Why is this a problem, you may reasonably ask?
Because every professional player has signed a contract in which it implies that they are forbidden from playing in external events if it devalues tournaments already on the World Snooker Tour.
A lot of snooker’s biggest names, however, have evidently grown tired of how the sport is being run.
Tournaments have returned to China this season after a four-year absence due to the pandemic, finally providing more earning opportunities after what was a testing period on the circuit.
But overall there have been serious questions asked in recent times of WST and the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association’s (WPBSA) inability to grow the game further.
Several organisational and planning gaffes have only served to heighten tensions.
Constant issues with venues, a fiasco surrounding WST’s live-scoring system this term, and a lopsided calendar have contributed to an alienation of both players and fans alike.
Yet as has been its trademark move when challenged on a topic over the last few years, WST decided its best course of action was not to listen, but to launch a staggering attack instead.
“Following recent speculation and the publication of an article containing many inaccuracies, the WST would like to make its position clear regarding non-sanctioned exhibition events,” the World Snooker Tour statement read.
“It is important to stress that WST players do not have to enter all WST events, they have the freedom to choose, which has always been the case.”
“This level of freedom is unlike any other sport where players have voluntarily opted to enter contracts with their club/organisation.
“However, with this level of freedom we do make clear in our player contracts that a player must not do anything that is detrimental to the WST or a WST event.
“It is without doubt that playing in a non-sanctioned event instead of playing in a WST event is detrimental to that WST event.
“Given the exhibition event in Macau directly clashes with the final stages of the Northern Ireland Open, a player’s participation in it would constitute a breach of their player contract given that to compete in Macau, the player would not be available to compete in the Northern Ireland Open thereby devaluing the Northern Ireland Open.
“Unfortunately, despite engaging in email correspondence and phone calls intended to best explain our position and enable the players to make informed decisions, five players (four of whom are ranked within the top 16) have decided not to compete in the Northern Ireland Open and have withdrawn their entry in order to play in Macau.
“These players are Mark Selby, John Higgins, Luca Brecel, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and Ali Carter, none of whom will therefore appear in Belfast.
“As a result, if these players decide to participate in the exhibition in Macau, the WST will have no alternative but to refer them to the WPBSA Disciplinary Committee for breach of their player contract, and this has been clearly communicated to the players.
“Taking necessary action in these circumstances protects WST events on behalf of the fans who attend and follow our events through television and social media, our sponsors/commercial partners, broadcasters/streaming partners and most importantly, the other 125 members of the WST.
“WST has always been and will continue to be supportive of a player’s earning opportunities outside of the WST provided that these do not distract, devalue, or conflict with the WST or a WST event.
“Players and promoters have ample opportunity to play in and host non-sanctioned events during gaps in the WST calendar.
“The WST does not therefore support any clash with a WST event and would consider a player’s decision to prioritise a non-sanctioned event clashing with a WST event to be a breach of their player contract.
“This would undoubtedly result in sizeable financial implications to the WST including loss of broadcast income, and sponsorship and ticket sales revenue let alone losses due to any reputational damage.”
Although not explicitly stated, the “article containing many inaccuracies” is widely believed to be one published by Hector Nunns on Sunday night.
In the piece, the well-known snooker journalist reported on the situation, writing that snooker bosses had sent emails and strongly-worded letters to the players.
Nunns staunchly defended the contents of his article, indicating he had given the World Snooker Tour a chance to respond ahead of its publication – an offer that was ignored.
He later said on social media: “For an organisation increasingly seen as thin-skinned, paranoid, incapable of dealing with criticism, and suffering currently from terrible media, comms and messaging, the very belated statement on the Macau player mutiny tonight raises that bar.”
Ronnie O’Sullivan, meanwhile, who has never been shy of sharing his gripes with the game’s leadership, defended the players’ right to earn a living as best they see fit.
“There is absolutely no reason to try and stop me and other players going to Shanghai during the Northern Ireland qualifiers,” O’Sullivan said, as quoted in the same article in the Daily Mail.
“That is a small event, we are not involved, and we could still play in the final stages with our matches being held over.”
“Players are just trying to earn money, it is their choice. And they are realising their value. They are trying to restrict us.
“Those involved in Shanghai were sent letters advising them not to play.
“I know for the tournament in Macau players were also sent even stronger threatening letters telling them it was in breach of their contract.
“That with an opportunity to play in an official tournament they were turning it down and choosing to go somewhere else, and it was damaging for the sport.
“It is b*ll*cks, trying to scare players like that. It’s wrong and I am glad they have taken a strong stance.
“This is about players being able to earn what they can, and choose how and when they play. They can enter a tournament – but they don’t have to.
“They used to try and tell me what to say, until I got a really good lawyer who kicked back at them. If they want to play silly games, we can all play silly games.”
Snooker has already endured a bad year following the ban of ten disgraced players from China earlier in 2023 amid a seismic match-fixing scandal.
This developing saga is not, then, the type of press that is needed, and there are concerns that this is only the beginning.
Rumours have been circulating of a possible player boycott of the Masters in January – the prestigious invitational at the Alexandra Palace that boasts the world’s top 16 in its lineup.
Whether it will get to that point remains to be seen, but WST and the WPBSA need to seriously consider whether they want to continue rolling the dice with potentially opening Pandora’s box.
Other sports have been fractured by the prospect of breakaway tours in the past, most recently with a messy divide in the world of golf.
For the first time in a long time, there are clear warning signs that snooker could be in danger of heading down a similarly ominous path.
Featured photo credit: WST