Snooker: Snookered

Without a sponsor, and perhaps a home, the future of one of the UK's favourite sports is under threat

Twenty years on from snooker's finest hour - the epic World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis - the future of the game has never been more shrouded in doubt.

Twenty years on from snooker's finest hour - the epic World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis - the future of the game has never been more shrouded in doubt.

This year's World Championship, which starts in Sheffield on Saturday, provides the two most obvious, indicative pieces of evidence. The tournament will be the 30th and last under the banner of Embassy because of the Government's ban on tobacco advertising. No sponsor has been confirmed to take up the baton. The past two seasons have already lacked sponsors stepping forward to fill the void at other events. Prize-money is plummeting, and the knock-on effects are already being felt.

Last season there were 128 players on the professional tour. This year there are 96, to be downscaled again, to 64, for 2005-06. Worse still, for established lower-ranking pros and aspirants alike, only the top 56 players this season will survive next season. That means fewer sustainable jobs, per se, and fewer berths for hopefuls to aim at.

The second indicator of snooker's uncertain future is the long-term venue for the World Championship. The Crucible, with 970 seats, is grandeur faded to crumbling point. It is cramped in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. It has no corporate facilities. And although this ill-equipped venue should retain next year's tournament - as an announcement on 22 April is expected to confirm - it is by default, because of lack of viable alternatives, rather than on merit.

Lack of foresight and planning is responsible for lack of sponsorship and the absence, to date, of a long-term venue for the jewel in snooker's crown. Over the two decades since Taylor and Davis slugged out their 1985 final, the game has had more in-fighting than Newcastle United and less vision than a bat.

Several breakaways have been mooted and staved off, just. For every step forward envisioned by reformers, currently embodied by Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of World Snooker since late 2003, two have been lost through lack of consensus and resistance to change. The loss of tobacco cash and the deterioration of The Crucible have both been coming for years. That so little has been done to address them only emphasises the game's plight.

To the average armchair fan, it could be argued that a third factor is undermining the game: a lack of characters. Popular perception has it that the 1980s heydays were awash with them. And a roll call comprising Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Cliff Thorburn, Tony Knowles, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, to name a few, would suffice for any smorgasbord of excitement, dynamism, bad-boy antics, pin-ups, steely class, laughs and shooting stars.

Although Ronnie O'Sullivan, Paul Hunter and Stephen Hendry carry a contemporary torch respectively for edgy, manic brilliance, poster-boy chic and enduring quality, many casual observers struggle to see many supporting personalities.

That is a harsh judgement on gregarious, high-ranked players such as Mark Williams, John Higgins, Peter Ebdon and Ken Doherty, who have won five World Championships between them in the last eight years, not to mention last year's runner-up, Graeme Dott and this season's coming man, Stephen Maguire. It would require a much wider debate to analyse the diminishing prominence of snooker in a football-dominated, multi-channel sporting era. But public perception is all-important, and a sport that fails to market its wares properly, and allows a dwindling of numbers in a highly competitive age, is culpable.

Ian Doyle is the manager of seven-times world champion Hendry and the head of the 110 Sport stable that represents myriad other players including Williams, Doherty and Maguire. "Snooker has been in turmoil for the last 20 years," he says. "The game needs a top-quality chief executive, top-quality salesmen and visionary marketing people. And what's it got? Part-time directors and leading figures working a few days a month.

"The game has got huge potential for sponsors and no one seems to be looking in the right places. Look at SpecSavers and football referees. That company could be getting much more exposure through snooker, and if we're honest we've got to concede that our audience is growing older and look at companies like that, or Saga, or whoever. It's all about taking your opportunities." On the subject of a venue for the World Championship, he says: "Maybe the way forward is for different venues to stage it in rotation, like the Open golf."

Hendry and Taylor are among many who have called for rotation. Williams, representative of the more outspoken players, has called the Crucible "a shithole" and would welcome a move.

Others, like Dott, argue for the status quo. "For us, the players, you won't find anywhere better," he says. "I don't think they could find anywhere to put you under any more pressure. The dressing-rooms, the walk, your seat. It's all pressure, all atmosphere. And that's what makes it special."

In the 1980s, "special" was the norm for the World Championship final, and never was that truer than 1985. Davis, the champion in 1981, 1983 and 1984, was the red-hot favourite to become the first man to complete three straight wins since the event's move to Sheffield in 1977. And after the final's first eight frames, leading 8-0, it seemed inevitable.

Taylor had other ideas about his joker's role, pulling back to 11-11, then from 17-15 down to 17-17 by the second evening. The decider lasted 68 minutes. Taylor needed the four remaining colours for victory. He sank a long brown, the blue and the pink to leave the title resting on the black. He missed a risky double into the middle pocket.

By now it was past midnight. In homes around the country, 18.5m viewers were glued to BBC2, giving the channel its highest ever audience and British television its best post-midnight figures for any programme. Both records stand today. The final set a record for the largest British audience for any sporting event.

The pair exchanged three more shots before Taylor again attempted to pot the black - and again missed. Davis just needed to cut the ball in to seal his triumph - but missed. The black loitered next to the pocket. As the nation chewed its fingernails at 12.33am, Taylor rose from his chair. The rest is his story.

There will be no escape from the commemorations. The BBC will screen a documentary during this year's World Championship. No doubt the tournament will also be peppered with re-runs of the era-defining moment when the latter, overcome with joy, famously wagged his finger in the air as he sealed his title. Yet for all its relevance today, the footage may as well be in sepia.

Paradoxically, snooker's television coverage remains high (1,900 hours annually on all platforms) and ratings respectable. Twice in the last four years the Crucible final has beaten the FA Cup final.

But this is in spite of, not thanks to, the stewardship of the game. Undeniably, snooker is at a crossroads, with its income, roster and spiritual home all in the balance.

It could be that this month's China Open in Beijing, where a teenager, Ding Jun Hui, unexpectedly saw off the established names - including Hendry in the final, in front of a Chinese television audience of more than 100 million people - provided a hint of the way the wind is blowing.

"If you're going to be progressive, you look globally, which might mean taking the World Championship to China in six or seven years," Doyle says. "The sport is in need of total revolution, with a proper marketing strategy and a clear purpose of where it's going in the next decade."

The day Taylor and Davis captivated a nation

Dennis Taylor, winner of the most watched and compelling World Championship final of all time, believes that the popularity of the sport in 1985 is unlikely to be replicated.

"After the 1985 final, the Garda told me it was the first time that they'd never had an emergency call between 11pm on a Sunday night and 1am in the morning."

Such was the sport's far-reaching popularity that the Burnley water board saw fit to write to Taylor soon after the event: "They said the water chart in the area had never been so high. So many people were awake, making drinks and nipping to the toilet."

Snooker in the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by personalities like Taylor and Cliff Thorburn. Taylor believes their unique introduction to the sport meant they possessed the showmanship to attract large audiences. He said: "When we were young, players like me played at holiday camps to entertain people. You can't expect today's players to be doing the same."

It was not until some time after the victory that the Irishman became fully aware of the enormity of the occasion, as he watched television pictures relayed from home: "It was amazing to see people [in the streets] partying at 3am. For me to have beaten one of the game's greatest-ever players and to beat him on the final black captured people's imaginations."

JOHN STANTON

Knocked off pole position: Other briefly popular TV sports

* BOXING

From the 1970s to 1995 boxing was beamed live in to the homes of the British people on Saturday nights, making household names of domestic fighters such as Minter, Conteh, McGuigan, Bruno, Eubank, Benn and even Harry Carpenter. Today's fighters, restricted to Sky, struggle for recognition beyond the most ardent fans, with perhaps only Lennox Lewis and Amir Khan enjoying even a remotely similar profile.

* SUMO

Super-heavyweight thrills from the Land of the Rising Sun. From 1987-1989 25-stone-plus behemoths threw salt, slapped flesh and pushed each other over for the benefit of Channel 4 viewers, and school playgrounds across the nation reverberated to the sound of clashing heads. In 1991, 1.2 million people tuned into Channel 4's coverage.

* AMERICAN FOOTBALL

William "The Refrigerator" Perry, Joe Montana and Co thundered on to our Sunday night TV screens in the 1980s and figures peaked when Chicago Bears defeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl '86.

* WRESTLING

One-ah! Two-ah! Three-ah! Big Daddy, Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks et al enraptured and enraged old ladies across the nation on Sunday afternoons from 1980-1987. Haystacks was made an honorary citizen of Zimbabwe and could claim Frank Sinatra as a fan.

* MOTORCYCLING

Two words: Barry Sheene. The double world champion was responsible for attracting a whole new audience to motor sport in the 1970s with his daring racing skills and playboy lifestyle. Add 27 metal screws, innumerable broken bones and an appearance alongside Maria Callas at the Royal Opera House and he was singularly responsible for the sport crossing over to general appeal.

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