Exclusive: Snooker to undergo huge restructuring

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The Independent Online

Snooker will undergo "the most radical and expansive restructuring in the history of the sport", with at least a doubling in the number of ranking events and the introduction of a year-round calendar with tournaments in every continent if plans announced today by World Snooker and the entertainment giant, IMG, come to fruition as planned.

The Independent can reveal that Brazil, America, Germany, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands, Thailand, India and Australia are all nations whose suitability are being assessed for major new events.

Talks are already underway with promoters in some of these areas. The number of ranking events will probably increase (from the current six) before the end of this season, with an envisaged increase to 15 by the end of the 2010-11 campaign, and more afterwards. The models for new look World Snooker Tour are the professional tennis and golf circuits.

China, which already stages two ranking events, in Beijing and Shanghai, is likely to get a third in Macau, and a "wish list" of 20-plus new events globally has been drawn up.

Snooker has widely been perceived to be struggling in recent years, with the game's most bankable player, Ronnie O'Sullivan, saying in January that a drastic makeover was required. The world No1 said, only partly in jest, that an impresario such as Simon Cowell was needed to shake up the snooker's image.

The reigning world champion, John Higgins, has not only advocated taking the sport into new territories, but has promoted a World Series of Snooker with matches in Germany, Poland, Russia, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Yet these have largely been small, invitational events, and if the World Snooker Tour takes off, it could take the sport truly global for the first time. IMG's role is pivotal; the company is willing to invest time and resources because it now believes there is sustainable TV-rights related income to be made in snooker.

There are just six ranking tournaments in the current calendar - the Shanghai Masters, the Grand Prix, the UK Championship, the Welsh Open, the China Open and the World Championship - and prize money has dwindled in in the wake of the ban on tobacco advertising in sport.

The revolutionary plan to mount what is in effect the rescue of an ailing British-centered sport, has been in the development stage for some time under the guidance of World Snooker's chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, and senior IMG executives.

"The players have made it clear to me that they want to be playing more tournaments and that's what we're planning to provide," Sir Rodney told The Independent. "In the next three years or so, I'd hope we'll have in place a 12-month calendar, with at least 15 ranking events and hopefully 20 or more."

He added that staging a ranking tournament typically costs £400,000 in prize money, overheads, transport for players and officials and other costs. Sir Rodney has personally held talks with a promoter about an event in Brazil and says "there's already $250,000 on the table there. We've got other locations with interest in the Far East. And with Europe, Germany is an obvious target market. Romania is a less obvious market but one with enormous enthusiasm".

The two current ranking events in China are already self-funding and the new plan will likely succeed or fail depending on whether individual promoters join forces with World Snooker to invest in new, long-term ventures.

Adam Kelly, the marketing director of IMG Sport Media who is leading the project from a commercial perspective said: "The strategy is founded on two major elements, profitable rights distribution and premier quality production.

"An important aspect of the strategy is to engage independent promoters. The sanction from the World Snooker Tour will deliver a number of benefits for them including participation from the world's best players, high quality TV production and guaranteed global TV exposure."

One crucial caveat to the proposals is that snooker has long been divided by political differences. There have been splits between rival player factions, civil war between some players and the governing body, and bitter power struggles between rival promoters. Many of these feuds go on, and Sir Rodney himself, up for re-election as chairman of World Snooker in a week's time, faces the theoretical prospect of being voted off the WS board and losing his job.

The long-time promoter Barry Hearn is not standing for office but has said he would consider replacing Sir Rodney. The plans announced yesterday are not reliant on Sir Rodney staying in office but he has been key to their development.

"In the last five years, the sport has progressed from an uncertain financial position with a history of turmoil, to a sport with financial stability, renewed long-term worldwide broadcast contracts and new sponsorship agreements," he said.

"We hope the players and promoters will recognise the opportunities of being part of this ambitious plan and help in bringing it to fruition."

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