Why snooker needs the X Factor

When your top player says the sport is dying, it's time to take notice. Nick Harris reports on how a Simon Cowell-like makeover could be the answer

Tuesday 13 January 2009 01:00

Ronnie O'Sullivan is box-office gold for good reason, on and off the snooker tables where his talents have made him a multimillionaire, and the 33-year-old from Essex has again shown why by reigniting the debate about the future of his sport. Snooker, he says, is on "a downward spiral" and in need of a Simon Cowell-esque Svengali, or else it risks becoming an irrelevance that he can do without.

O'Sullivan made his remarks after a 6-5 win over Joe Perry in his opening match at the Masters, the biggest event in the annual calendar outside of the World Championship, with a winner's cheque of £150,000 at stake.

More than 2,100 people paid to watch his match live at Wembley and millions more watched on television, as they did when O'Sullivan won the World Championship last year for a third time, after an event that still outdoes darts – its main rival in indoor sport – in TV ratings.

So there are those who might argue that this is just the latest whine from a man whose mood swings are well known. O'Sullivan is prone to making his views known, frankly and robustly, and it is far from the first time he has voiced his dissatisfaction with his sport, or indeed his lot in life. But his clear frustration at what he sees as a lack of dynamism within snooker's governing body prompted the latest outburst and he is not alone in his belief that change is needed.

"I feel like I'm in a sport that has had its good days and is on a really downward spiral," he said. "I think it needs someone like Barry Hearn, or Simon Cowell with entrepreneurial skills, someone who's more up to date in the modern world, that's a bit more dynamic.

"People who are running snooker, it just seems to be going backwards, nothing seems to be happening. It just feels boring going to tournaments. It was always exciting.

"The game is dying and unless something happens I ain't going to these tournaments for £30,000... I don't really want to play, to be honest with you... I love the game and I'm in great shape physically and mentally, but I've got to the stage where I don't really care if I play or not."

Cowell could not be contacted yesterday to ask how he might transform the sport. Perhaps he could suggest an X Factor, or say that Alexandra Burke singing a medley of Leonard Cohen songs in the interval would bring the crowds flocking to the Crucible. But he was busy with the first day's filming for the next series of Britain's Got Talent. However, Max Clifford, sometime PR adviser to Cowell and one of the foremost image-shapers in Britain, said snooker "simply needs to create stars".

"The game itself remains very much as it as was when Joe Davis was winning the World Championship in the 1920s and that in itself isn't a problem," Clifford said.

"But somebody needs to get hold of the sport and promote it properly by creating stars with a broad appeal who will bring in new fans and generate a buzz. David Beckham is a star for a lot of people who have no interest in football, and he brings those fans to football."

Clifford cited darts as a sport that has marketed itself brilliantly, and it is no coincidence that both Hearn and BSkyB – both experts in packaging and selling televised sport to the masses – have been heavily involved in that process.

"Let's face it. Darts isn't very sexy and darts player aren't sexy but they've been made so, and are huge now," said Clifford. "What would I do with snooker? Find some good-looking, interesting, young guys coming through, and they are out there, and build them up.

"Get them seen with beautiful girls in the right places, at the X Factor final, on Dancing on Ice, on the biggest game show, on Strictly, in TV ads. Can it be done? Yes. It takes time. But make stars and people will follow them, including in their sport. It's all about playing the media game. It's all about perception."

Asked if he would be willing to work with the governing body, Clifford said: "Absolutely, but bring it up to date, make it more widely followed. That is what it needs, it needs the board to come and say, 'Right, we're going to have a year's PR campaign' which will cost £250,000 or something like that. But what you're going to get out of it is worth millions."

The irony in O'Sullivan's "downward spiral" remarks is that the reaction to them has partially proved the precise point he was making. They have garnered huge attention, through being a talking point, at a time when the snooker itself is easy to overlook through a dearth of colourful personalities.

Snooker's fortunes lie in the fact that it has O'Sullivan at centre stage. He is affable, engaging, flawed, intriguing, disturbed, thrilling. He is handsome and witty and cocky and funny. His dad, Ronnie Snr, remains in prison for murder, serving a sentence that has shadowed Ronnie Jnr's life since he was a teenager. His mum has done time as well. O'Sullivan is also, by a margin, the most naturally talented snooker player the world has ever seen. Snooker's misfortune is that only Ronnie is centre stage. No other current player can hold a candle to him, on or off the baize.

Yet it is also worth reiterating that snooker's halcyon days of the 1980s happened in an era of three-channel television where the sport was, frankly, among the cheapest and easiest way to fill hours of scheduling. The 18.5 million who watched the most famous final, Taylor-Davis of 1985, is a millstone around the game's neck.

Yes, back then, Alex Higgins gave the game an edge, with plenty of sex, alcohol and sometimes violence thrown in. So what if he was, according to most of those who ever got close to him, despicable? He was a folk hero too.

Cliff Thorburn was a Canadian smoothie who did cocaine. So was Kirk Stevens, come to think of it. Tony Knowles was a famous ladies' man. Jimmy White was ever the loveable rogue, while Dennis Taylor and Joe Johnson were talented working men's club entertainers who were also able to win the biggest prize.

The generation that followed this "golden age" – and what a golden age it was when chart success could be achieved by teaming up with Chas n'Dave on Snooker Loopy – comprised more serious and less flamboyant young men: Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, John Higgins, Peter Ebdon. And the "new" generation are more serious, more professional still, in application and attitude, epitomised by the growing group of Chinese youngsters hoping to make a fortune from a sport taking off in a big way back home.

Sir Rodney Walker, the chairman of World Snooker, responded to O'Sullivan's comments by saying that he was "surprised and disappointed" by them. Nobody would argue snooker, like many sports, would benefit from an injection of glamour and a higher media profile. But equally Sir Rodney has battled to keep alive a sport holed close to the waterline by the loss of all tobacco sponsorship, and in an era when many far more youth-oriented sports fill hours of airtime.

Sir Rodney might also argue that snooker prize-money had risen by 30 per cent in two years, albeit not to peak levels, but by £1m none the less. Standards are higher than ever, however measured: 100s, 147s, strength in depth. A new initiative, HotShots, was launched to promote young players, although it has hardly gone "mainstream" yet. New events in China and Bahrain show international growth.

Hearn, a key figure for decades as Steve Davis's manager and as a promoter of snooker, insisted yesterday that snooker is not "down and out" but added that O'Sullivan is "carrying the sport on his own shoulders".

"Snooker still does decent business but it's not as dramatic as it used to be," he said. "Basically, we had a diet of fantastic characters in the sport and, without criticising the other players, Ronnie O'Sullivan is sort of carrying the sport on his own shoulders. He's the biggest seller of snooker to most punters, but he needs some competition, he needs some other characters out there that will highlight the advantages and the excitement of snooker.

"It still does decent business – it's not down and out. But maybe that is the level it has to be at now because the market has changed, the climate has changed, the entertainment factor has changed and snooker just ticks over."

Strictly snooker: Radical ways to put the party into potting

*Cheerleaders: American football is the world leader in the high-kicking, pompom-flinging stakes, but no one is saying that snooker needs to go to Super Bowl extremes complete with wardrobe malfunctions. Even lower league football teams have their troupes and the Cueties or the Pottettes do have a certain ring.

*The Exploding Ball: More radical this one, but as a tension-builder hard to beat. One of the balls in every frame is mined and fitted with a timer, but the players do not know which one. Once the ball is armed, it explodes at the next contact, showering the immediate area with whipped cream or custard. Exciting or what?

*Fancy dress: As the Prince of Darkness, Ronnie O'Sullivan is a shoo-in for Dracula, but Steven Hendry as Jonny Depp-inspired Captain Jack Sparrow would be a spectacle to treasure. There's certain to be an opening for a Cinderella, but let's not go there.

*Animals: You should never work with children or animals, so the saying goes, but something cute and furry could prove a winner. A few frames of pot-the-hamster to liven up the interval would be perhaps taking things too far.

*Characters: Take away Ronnie and where are the personalities? Jimmy White's whirlwind blew out long ago and how the game longs for a new Alex Higgins to fill the front pages as well as the back. We're not asking everyone to gamble away their house while enveloped in a drug-fuelled fug, or headbutt a referee, but let's show some spirit.

*Fans: Watch the darts at the Ally Pally and the atmosphere is fantastic, because the spectators are allowed to do their thing. Loads of noise, lots of colour and not a dry glass in the house. Compare that with the grave-like silence of snooker. It's time to loosen up.

*Fights: This has already been trailed by Quinten Hann and Mark King in 2004 after Hann was challenged to a boxing match for making offensive gestures and remarks during a World Championship game. Hann (in blue headgear) won, but had his nose broken when he later took on a Gaelic footballer after insulting Ireland's greatest game. A good rumble to sort things out when the frames are level 17-17? Worth a look.

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