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Page last updated at 17:49 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Snooker droopy?

Changing face of snooker perhaps? O'Sullivan and Trump
Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump - the changing face of snooker?

By Mark Ashenden

After snapping his cue "for fun" and squeezing into the Masters quarter-finals, Ronnie O'Sullivan claimed snooker was a "dying" sport, in need of an injection of X Factor-glitz from the likes of Simon Cowell or Barry Hearn.

"It just feels boring" he said, venting his fury upon the sport's organisers and applauding Hearn's efforts with darts, transforming sweaty 19-stone players into highly-marketable athletic machines.

There is no doubt snooker is wobbling. Clubs are disappearing, the World Championship remains sponsorless and could move to China, while players no longer set tongues wagging in the media or the school playground.

Apart from the Rocket of course, who blows up at regular intervals.

Players are all moaning but not doing anything about it

Commentator Clive Everton

World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chairman Sir Rodney Walker, who has presided over the sport since 2004, expressed his surprise and disappointment at Ronnie's latest outburst.

But is the world's finest ever cueman kick-starting welcome debate, or doing his sport a disservice?

Discontent with the governing body from some players has been rumbling for some time.

Two-time world champion John Higgins has been particularly critical of the inability of the WPBSA to promote snooker overseas - something Walker refutes, highlighting three new tournaments in China and a ranking tournament in Bahrain.

Phil D - BBC Sport

Veteran snooker commentator Clive Everton is firmly in the O'Sullivan camp, but believes there have been problems for 30 years.

"The game used to be run by players but now it's run by experienced businessmen who have no passion for snooker," he says.

"There is an unharmonious atmosphere between players and organisers. Players have either given up with their opposition or are unwilling to take action. They are all moaning but not doing anything about it."

Although the WPBSA board was re-elected in November, 67.6% of players abstained from voting, certainly hinting at a silent protest. The board does have its supporters though.

"This isn't a case of the governing body not working hard enough," says new UK champion Shaun Murphy, who blames the credit crisis - "people haven't got any money to spend" - and a change in the way people consume sport.

"The culture of Britain has changed massively," Murphy added. "Twenty years ago clean cut professional sportsmen were entertaining people. Now people tune into Big Brother because they want to watch people crack up. I hope it doesn't go that way."

Ronnie O'Sullivan
O'Sullivan has spoken of his frustration despite his success

Talk of dwindling viewing figures is futile with the arrival of hundreds of TV channels affecting most sports, and snooker still holds up well in terms of its TV audience.

Hearn, the man behind the Matchroom stable of stars that dominated the sport in its 1980s "loopy" heyday, believes a lack of "fantastic characters" - O'Sullivan aside - is a major factor.

The impresario has latterly turned his hands to darts, relocating the Professional Darts Corporation World Championship to London's Alexandra Palace, but has yet to introduce the flamboyant entrances and scantily-clad women into snooker's Premier League.

So what is the prevailing mood this week at the Masters - not a ranking tournament but one of the most prestigious - about snooker's so-called demise?

Tony, 30, and Rob, 28, both from Surrey and attending their first tournament, have been snooker fans for 24 years and were a little alarmed by the amount of old people in the crowd.

They both still love to watch the sport but reminisced warmly of the 'golden days' when Alex Higgins, Jimmy White and Bill Werbeniuk were sinking as many pints as balls.

Rob believes changes to snooker would be healthy. "The players these days are too professional," he says. "They are robots. There is no joking or talking to the audience. My mum used to be able to tell the name of every player, but not now.

I don't think snooker's boring. The sport is fun and has a great future.

World number 41 Judd Trump

"You would think the game would have continued to grow but it doesn't seem to have. The thing is, I don't care who wins. It doesn't have any tension or arguments off the table. We want the snooker but we want to be entertained."

Rob suggested the razzmatazz seen in darts would be "tacky", while Tony thought drinking five pints (for the players) before each game would be interesting.

One idea getting the nod from most I spoke to at Wembley is the 25-seconds-per-shot ruling used in snooker's Premier League. "Why not speed things up a bit?" said Tony.

The nightmare scenario for snooker is a chasm that grows so deep and so vitriolic that more than one governing body is formed, with World Championships in Sheffield and, say, Abu Dhabi.

The examples of darts and boxing are warnings enough.

It is a scenario Clive Everton is loathe to consider and wants the WSPBA to start urgently working with independent promoters, a view endorsed by six-time world champion Steve Davis.

"The sport will become either an area of co-operation or a battleground," Everton warns.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Bristol's 19-year-old Judd Trump may have lost 6-4 to Mark Allen but his demeanour hints at a dose of much-needed glamour for the sport.

With his Armani earring and spiky hair, he has the look of a man dressed by his mum 10 minutes before his brother's wedding.

But his quiet confidence and passion for the sport suggest a future champion in the making.

"Ronnie can think what he wants," Trump said. "He almost lost (to Joe Perry) so that's probably why he said what he said. I don't think snooker's boring. The sport is fun and has a great future."

Jamie Cope
Jamie Cope - another bright young star shining on the baize

One change Trump would like to see is the outfit players have to wear at the table, a view echoed by Jamie Cope, who declares that "no player really likes wearing the tie and waistcoat".

The 23-year-old from Stoke, ranked 19 and known as "The Shotgun", is one of five players used in World Snooker's Hotshots initiative aimed at attracting new fans.

While agreeing with some of O'Sullivan's sentiments, Cope remains in love with the sport.

"Some of Ronnie's points are true," he said. "It would be good to try new things in snooker but what all players want is what's best for the sport."

Wembley Arena was only half-full on Monday, when the likes of Trump, Mark Allen, Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy were in action.

But on Sunday 1400 fans watched the opening match of the tournament featuring world number two Stephen Maguire, while more than 2,100 cheered on Ronnie later in the day.

There is no doubt, as Davis says, snooker needs a "shot in the arm".

It may be struggling to breathe at times, but dying? Hardly.

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see also
O'Sullivan wants X Factor glitz
12 Jan 09 |  Snooker
O'Sullivan 'cannot equal' Hendry
07 Dec 08 |  Snooker
O'Sullivan punished for comments
08 Jun 08 |  Snooker
Higgins open to Crucible switch
20 Oct 08 |  Snooker
Masters draw
05 Jan 09 |  Snooker
Snooker on the BBC
16 Sep 08 |  Snooker

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