Snooker: Hearn uses power to plot transformation of the baize
Power Snooker promises glitz, glamour and fast potting as the game chases a new television audience
Saturday 30 October 2010
A shorter, more Hollywood version of the game, with associated jargon, entrance music and its own set of marketing girls: snooker has its equivalent of Twenty20 cricket, and it starts today at the O2 in London.
Power Snooker is at the vanguard of Barry Hearn's attempts to do for snooker what he has already done for darts – rejuvenate the game for a television audience.
As Chairman of World Snooker, the body responsible for the commercial side of professional snooker, Hearn is desperate to revitalise an increasingly tired and predictable format. "The lunatics have been running the asylum," Hearn said back in April. "I want to throw away the baggage and repair their mistakes, because there's been millions. I want to uplift the game and make the players rich."
This diagnosis of decline is widely shared. The famous World Championship final of 1985, when 18.5m viewers stayed up until after midnight to watch on the BBC feels a world away now. The 2009 final between John Higgins and Shaun Murphy drew in an audience of just 2.3m. Moreover, the recent controversy surrounding Higgins, and his £75,000 fine and six-month ban, adds to the feeling of public alienation from the game.
This is what Hearn is so keen to address. He is a lifelong snooker fan whose career in sports promotion has seen him also become chairman of Leyton Orient. But some of his highest profile work has been in darts, where, as chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, he has overseen the growth of Premier League Darts and the relocation of the World Championships from its spiritual home in Purfleet to Alexandra Palace.
Hearn took over the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association last December, after the players removed former chairman Sir Rodney Walker. Ronnie O'Sullivan, the marketing icon of Power Snooker, saw that Hearn was the man to change the game and said: "Sometimes you have to back people with a little blind faith." Soon after, Hearn made World Snooker, the WPBSA's commercial arm, independent. He appointed himself chairman and stood down from the WPBSA board – whose remit is now limited to rules, drug testing and billiards.
While the idea of Power Snooker itself did not come from Hearn but from the former Bee Gees manager Rod Gunner, it did fit perfectly within Hearn's vision of a snooker more amenable to broadcasters and sponsors. It involves matches restricted to 30 minutes in length, regardless of frames, and includes a 20-second shot-clock. There are other tweaks, including the number of reds and bonus points but it is all meant to combine to create a faster, more intense game. Those looking for a repeat of the Dennis Taylor-Steve Davis 68-minute final frame in 1985 will be disappointed.
Just as important as the game itself are the trimmings. There will be entrance music for the players, female referees and the "Power Girls". And central to all of this is O'Sullivan, the star attraction of Power Snooker's debut tournament today.
Not only is he the most marketable man in snooker (the second most marketable, Jimmy White, is also playing), but the rules also seem perfectly matched to his own brand of instinctive, off-the-cuff brilliance. And he seems as ready for the advent of Power Snooker as any broadcaster. "To be honest, I find the World Championship quite a bore," he said. "Seventeen days in Sheffield is quite draining. I don't want to be told what I can and can't do. I would rather play in the Premier League than the World Championship. You can just pitch up and play and move on. You don't have to sit around a hotel room in Sheffield trying to fill your day."
There is also an international element as the tournament will feature Chinese prodigy Ding Junhui, Belgian 15-year-old Luca Brecel and the current World Champion, Australia's Neil Robertson, who hopes the tournament brings in a wider audience.
"It's to try to spruce up the game a bit," said Robertson. "I'm sure if somebody switches on TV and the Power Girls are walking around the table or holding up the scores like at the end of a round in boxing, it might make you keep watching for a little longer."
Robertson also recognises the dynamic that made Twenty20 cricket so exciting: seeing the competitors work out the appropriate strategy to meet the new conditions. "You might have a 50-point lead and you think you've got a good lead but it can evaporate in a few shots."
Snooker has tried this before: Premier League Snooker has a shot-clock and yet has made little impression on the nation's sporting consciousness. However, given what entrance music and female "window-dressing" has done for cricket and darts, Power Snooker must be in with a shot.
Rewarding risk: How Power Snooker works
*All games last 30 minutes, and are won by points gained rather than frames. The clock stops between frames.
*There is a 20 second shot-clock, and a 20-point penalty for exceeding it.
*There are nine reds, rather than 15, and they are arranged in a diamond (as if in 9 ball Pool).
*The middle red is the PowerBall, which counts for two points and when potted triggers a two-minute PowerPlay.
*During a PowerPlay all balls potted count double. If a shot is missed during the PowerPlay the remaining time is inherited by the opponent.
*All fouls during the PowerPlay are fined twice over.
*The area behind the baulk line is the Power Zone. Any pot, or foul, where the cue ball was struck within this zone, counts double.
*So any pot during a PowerPlay but starting in the PowerZone counts quadruple. The same is true with fouls.
*A century break in any frame is worth a 50-point bonus. If repeated in a second or third consecutive frame it is worth a 100 and 200-point bonus respectively.
*After a foul shot the cue ball can be placed anywhere within the PowerZone.
*There are eight players: Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ding Junhui, Ali Carter, Luca Brecel, Neil Robertson, Jimmy White, Shaun Murphy and Mark Selby.
*It will be refereed by Michaela Tabb and Patricia Webb.
*There is a first-round knockout session from 1pm to 5pm. The semi-finals, third/fourth-place play-off and the Grand Final take place between 6pm and 10pm.
*It will all be broadcast on ITV4.
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