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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 15:58 GMT
Snooker's credibility at stake

BBC Snooker commentator Clive Everton assesses the future of the sport.

This could be last season for a while in which snooker has an undisputed world champion.

Mark Williams will defend his title at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, on 21 April -7 May but next year a rival world championship will be held at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham.

Who would have thought the English FA Cup final would ever be held in Cardiff?

Would a world championship seem quite the same away from the Crucible?

Friday's announcement of dates and venues for The Sportsmatsters Network's 6.5m 10-event global tour puts their tournaments in direct conflict with the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's existing world rankings circuit.

Undeclared

Among the top-16 players from whom internet and sports management company TSN claims support are Williams, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan. Stephen Lee, Ken Doherty, Fergal O'Brien, Anthony Hamilton, Dave Harold, Marco Fu, and Joe Swail.

Jimmy White is also among the total of its 30-odd claimed supporters.

WPBSA claims the allegiance of John Higgins, Peter Ebdon, Alan McManus and John Parrott while Matthew Stevens and Paul Hunter, the Benson and Hedges Masters champion, are among the undecided - or at least undeclared.

TSN is heavily financed. Warburg Pincus, the City venture capitalist, purchased a 20% stake for 10m.

WPBSA, which is effectively a members club for the players, is in much better financial shape then it was left by its last administration and is offering hefty loyalty bonuses to players opting for their tour.

But while TSN has deep pockets, and the edge in player signings, its television position appears less strong.

BBC TV intends to "fulfil its obligations" under its six-year deal with WPBSA, but would be unhappy if their tournaments did not contain major attractions who signed for the rival circuit.

Sky is also contracted to cover WPBSA events, although the fees payable could be reduced in the event of a material number of top players not participating.

Sky would not be restricted from covering a TSN event, if it so chose.

ITV and Channel 4 could also conceivably come into the equation, even if it seems impossible that they could schedule the number of hours BBC could offer through its two main channels.

Momentum

TSN's tour starts at Sheffield Arena on 28 August -9 September, in direct opposition to WPBSA's Grand Prix event, under the new sponsorship of LG Electronics, at Preston.

After three events in Asia, TSN will promote a UK Championship in London on the same dates as WPBSA's in York.

After Christmas, TSN will stage further tournaments in Belfast, Glasgow, Valetta and Antwerp prior to its own version of the world championship.

TSN's tour will be tobacco-free, while the lion's share of WPBSA sponsorship is from this source but due to end by government decree in 2003. That is apart from the Embassy World Championship, which has an extension until 2006.

Key elements

At the players' meeting in Newport on Monday, Jim McKenzie, WPBSA's managing director is expected to urge the uncommitted to stay with the established tour and to distribute entry forms for it requiring completion within a very few weeks.

The situation now has a commercial momentum which will carry us to a conclusion.

Player support, television, sponsorship and sheer weight of cash will be the key elements in the battle.

The worse result would be two tours of roughly equal strength and, like boxing and darts, separate world champions - thus damaging the credibility of both.

However, hostilities between WPBSA and TSN have now escalated to such a degree that it makes a negotiated settlement between them appear unlikely.

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See also:

16 Feb 01 |  Other Sports
Split threatens Crucible's status
14 Feb 01 |  Sports Talk
Is snooker snookered?
15 Feb 01 |  Other Sports
New sponsor joins ruling body
12 Feb 01 |  Other Sports
O'Sullivan chooses breakaway circuit
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