Snooker: Dark tale of snooker and strife

Playing standards are the highest ever but falling sponsorship and an ongoing civil war threatens the game's future
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TODAY A cameo will be played out which will illustrate the dark depths snooker is currently exploring. A white-haired, 61-year-old man will arrive at the Liverpool Victoria UK Championships and immediately be monitored by security guards. He can only go to the BBC commentary box and then leave. He cannot visit a cafe, the bar or the press room or take a swim even though the Bournemouth International Centre has leisure facilities.

The man is not a spy or a saboteur but Clive Everton, a journalist and commentator who has been the chief chronicler, an evangelist even, of the sport for 27 years. His crime, according to the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, is a series of articles that have questioned the wisdom and integrity of the governing body. Hence the restrictions.

Everton, it ought to be added here, is snooker correspondent of this paper's sister publication, the Independent on Sunday, but this is not an examination of the rights and wrongs of his case. His treatment is a symptom of a civil war raging through snooker, not the cause. A conflict that threatens the future of the sport.

On the table things could hardly be better. Television viewing figures are holding up so well the BBC has abandoned its policy of placing it in the nether regions of the schedules (the final frames of the UK Championship will be shown live on Sunday) and playing standards are undeniably higher than ever.

"In my heyday I played a man in the first round who potted like he had two broken arms," Steve Davis, the 41-year-old six-times world champion, said quantifying the improvement, "and it wasn't until the quarter-finals that I entertained the thought of losing. Now you turn up and straight out of the traps you are up against a kid who has made five 147s in practice the previous day and who doesn't give a damn about your reputation."

The game is fine, thriving even; it is away from the baize and bright lights that the mood deteriorates. A sport that can command television figures that comfortably outstrip Wimbledon and the Open Golf Championship ought to have companies falling over themselves to sponsor tournaments, but snooker is down to five - Embassy, Benson and Hedges, Regal, Rothmans and Liverpool Victoria. Compare that to the 34 who poured money in between 1986 and 1990 and you can appreciate the decline.

That inevitably means smaller prizes and the winner at the Bournemouth International Centre on Sunday week will get pounds 75,000, pounds 5,000 less than Doug Mountjoy received when he won the UK Championship, snooker's second most important title, 10 years ago.

A year ago Rex Williams attributed the lack of corporate backing to internal squabbling within the WPBSA, but since he reassumed the chairmanship in March 1997 the arguments have got louder and more bitter. Last December the chief executive, Jim McKenzie, was dismissed and will pursue a case of wrongful dismissal in the courts on 11 January; in the summer the head of media relations, Bruce Beckett, and the long-standing tournament director, Ann Yates, left; in June three former world champions, Steve Davis, Terry Griffiths and Dennis Taylor, unsuccessfully pursued a vote of no confidence in the board.

There are other issues, including an ongoing dispute with Benson and Hedges over the alleged behaviour of the WPBSA company secretary, Martyn Blake, at two dinner parties, and relations with the media have become so strained that Radio Five Live refuse to carry voice reports from Bournemouth and the Snooker Writers' Association has been re-formed because of alarm at the way the sport is being run. The atmosphere is close to poisonous.

McKenzie's dismissal is seen as the flashpoint in the great war that has followed. In simple terms - and very little is simple in this conflict - it is a difference over whether snooker should be run by professionals or the combination of former players and small businessmen who hitherto have been in charge.

Most leading players, including the world champion, John Higgins, and the previous two, Ken Doherty and Stephen Hendry, back the Davis-Griffiths- Taylor triumvirate who argue the current WPBSA board do not have the expertise to run a multi-million pound sport and men from the City should be appointed. But there are high-profile supporters of the current regime, too, including John Parrott, Alan McManus and Willie Thorne, and there was enough of the rank and file with them to defeat June's no-confidence motion by four votes.

The sadness is that it has pitted former friends against each other, which does not bode well for a wholesome atmosphere in the future no matter who is successful. "What upsets me with all the infighting over the years," Taylor, the 1985 champion, said, "is that the guys on the board, people like Bob Close, Rex and Jim Meadowcroft, are great pals of mine. This is not a personal attack, we just feel snooker is not going anywhere.

"It's not about egos, but saving the game. I've had a great living from snooker, I've travelled the world, and it would be nice to think today's youngsters will get the same chance as I did. But that prospect looks doubtful at the moment."

Last week a committee looking into the constitution of the WPBSA published an interim report that recommended the creation of two subsidiary companies to run the commercial affairs of snooker and billiards and be answerable to a new board of 10 members. It is a compromise and might win approval but no one is holding their breath.

Snooker's experience over many years is that conflict is easier to locate than solutions. We are not watching a sport committing suicide, it is too established for that, but it is indulging in self-mutilation.