Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Thursday, 15 April 2010 00:01 UK

Hearn plots snooker revolution

By Simon Jack
Business reporter, BBC News

Barry Hearn
Barry Hearn says snooker must learn how to sell itself

Snooker has been handed a take-it-or-leave-it offer by one of sports most colourful and best known promoters.

Barry Hearn, the man who shot to fame in the 1980s as a manager of boxers and snooker players is now proposing an overhaul with as radical an impact on snooker as Twenty20 has had on cricket.

It includes everything from rule changes to boxing-style introductions for the players.

"I'm already a rich man" says Barry Hearn, who would become the game's equivalent to formula one's Bernie Ecclestone if his controversial proposals are accepted.

"I don't need the money so if they don't share my vision... I'll go and do something else."

Commercially at least, snooker is in desperate need of a makeover.

Prime-time days

Its flagship event, the World Championship starts on Saturday, 17 April and the players will break off with the sport stuck behind the black ball.

Although 40,000 fans will pack into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield over 17 days, TV audiences have been on the wane.

In its heyday, snooker was prime-time entertainment - with a host of colourful characters with household nicknames.

Jimmy "The Whirlwind" White, and Alex "Hurricane" Higgins blew ratings sky high.

Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins in 1987
The 1980s was full of characters such as Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins

The 1985 final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor gripped an astonishing 18 million UK viewers into the small hours of the morning.

But those days are over. Last year's final attracted just 2.3 million people.

Hearn describes the 1985 viewing figures as a "millstone around our neck that can never be equalled - mainly because [of] all the new media that has emerged since then".

Nevertheless, that decline has seen sponsorship deals, players' prize money, and the number of tournaments dwindle.

So what is the solution? According to Mr Hearn, the commercial side of the game has been neglected because it has been run by people from inside the game.

"Snooker players don't make very good business people," he says.

"You have to understand how to sell to broadcasters and sponsors."

And part of that knowledge, he says, means changing the product itself.

Alienating the audience?

Under his proposals new formats would come in as well as bit more razzmatazz.

One frame shootouts, a shot clock to speed up play, and theme tunes for the players as they approach the table are all on the agenda.

But, could this alienate the audience the sport already has?

What you get with Barry is energy and enthusiasm and if you were a betting man, you would bet on him to succeed in boosting the game
Snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan

Mr Hearn insists that it's a case of tailoring each event to a specific audience.

He likens his ideas to the emergence of Twenty20 cricket, which operates successfully and lucratively alongside the five day Test match form of the game.

All of these proposals are designed to make snooker faster and more appealing, particularly to a younger crowd.

But will it work?

One young snooker player at a club in Croydon, south London, said "they should make it more fun".

"Sometimes watching adults on full size tables can be a bit dull and can take too long. Maybe they should have a shorter game with less reds."

Global appeal

As with many businesses, snooker is also looking east for new audiences.

The sport has grown in popularity as China's top player Ding Junhui has won both the China and UK championships.

There are four Chinese players competing in this year's world finals and there are some 80 million players registered in leagues around the country.

Ding Junhui
Players such as China's Ding Junhui are leading to interest in East Asia

Meanwhile, it is not just audiences that Mr Hearn has to convince - the players themselves will need talking round.

Will today's top stars share his vision?

Ronnie O'Sullivan is the world's number one player, its most flamboyant character, and arguably snooker's most valuable commercial asset.

Last year he said the sport was "on a downward spiral" and insisted that only someone with the business vision of a Simon Cowell or Barry Hearn could rescue it.

So what does he think of the plans?

"What you get with Barry is energy and enthusiasm and if you were a betting man, you would bet on him to succeed in boosting the game," the 34-year-old says.

Current world champion John Higgins says there are reservations among some of the players, but adds that "all professional players really want is the chance to play more tournaments for more money while doing the best for the game".

The players will have a chance to express those reservations at a meeting in Sheffield on 5 May, where an informal discussion and debate will be held about Hearn's vision.

An informal vote will be held to establish whether there is sufficient support among players to take the plan forward to a vote of the full membership of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA).

Money division

If approved, Mr Hearn's control over the game will be almost complete.

Under his plan World Snooker Limited, currently a subsidiary of the WPBSA, would be split off and would issue shares to raise £500,000.

Snooker table
The future face of snooker could be decided in the coming weeks

Hearn's own company Matchroom would take 51%, with 25% going to the players, whose entitlement would depend on their world ranking and tournament wins.

The remaining 24% would be split between other commercial partners.

So, for £250,000 of his own money, Barry Hearn would control the commercial future of the sport.

If he pulls it off and revives snooker's fortunes, he could make a lot of money. But as he says himself, he's already a rich man.

If he can pull it off it will be a trick shot worth watching

The World Championship starts on Saturday 17 April. BBC Coverage starts at 1430 BST on BBC2 or from 1000 BST via the red button.



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