December 10, 2009Branding Snooker
Snooker has a bit of an image problem. To overseas visitors who don’t know the game, it’a cue sport that’s played on a much bigger table than, say, eight ball pool. It’s also a lot more complex. Snooker is to pool as chess is to chequers. It’s a tough but rewarding game.
It’s also seen better days. The 1980s are regarded as the heyday of snooker, with the world championship final in 1985 being watched by 18.5 million people. Despite being more of a minority pastime here these days, it’s become big in China — with up to 50m regularly tuning in to watch matches. So there’s life in the old sport yet.
In fact, it’s fair to say that snooker has an image problem. It’s too slow, too quiet, not exciting enough for most people. Even ardent fans from the 80s argue that snooker isn’t what it used to be, that there aren’t any ‘characters’ in the sport, that it’s become boring.
I love snooker. But even I have to admit sometimes it’s a little slow.
The UK championship kicked off this week. I caught Snooker’s number 1, Ronnie O Sullivan’s opening match. At times, somnolent didn’t quite describe it. Nor did sleepy, slow, tired or dull. There was even a five minute pause while a little old lady was assisted to a glass of cold water. I’m a purist. These pauses don’t bore me. Nor does a long tactical frame. But for most people, snooker’s simply too slow.
At one point, snooker was considered an exciting sport with a working-class image. But somewhere the novelty wore off. Now it’s considered a slow, boring sport with little to no image. With the exception of “Rocket” Ronnie, few people outside the game can name its stars.
Yet other similar sports seem to do well. Golf is watched by millions, even though nothing happens at all. And darts, a sport with a similar image to snooker, is still flourishing.
Change is afoot.
Last week, the chairman of the governing body of World Snooker, Sir Rodney Walker, was ousted, with legendary 80s player Steve Davis and Barry Hearn, chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, co-opted onto the board.
The idea is that the new board will come up with a way of breathing new life into the game. Steve Davis is a popular, public figure. And Barry Hearn has kept darts alive.
How are they going to do it?
There’s a number of suggestions on the table. Among them are plans for a ‘world tour’ and more ranking tournaments, as well as plans for a faster version of the game containing fewer red balls, hoping that a faster game might do for snooker what 20 20 did for cricket.
I think the answer’s simpler.
It’s true that snooker doesn’t have the same characters it used to. But it’s hard for players to express their character around the table, when there are so many formal rules. The players don’t get enough exposure. Unless you follow the sport, you’ll never see them.
I know nothing about golf, but I do know who Tiger Woods is. And frankly, I don’t think revelations about his womanizing are going to harm his career. If anything, he’s given his profile a massive, manly boost. He’s put golf on the front pages, too. Don’t change the game, change the image.
Back in the early 90s there was an enormously popular game show called Big Break, that paired snooker players with members of the public in a chance to win prizes. The players still played on a snooker table and were given a chance to show off their skills, but also their character. It’s remembered with the same fondness as Bullseye, which certainly kept darts in the public eye.
Snooker is a great game. It just doesn’t provide many opportunities for self-promotion. Putting snooker players back in the media spotlight off the table, by bringing back programmes like Big Break, would regenerate interest in the game, and give the players a chance to develop their character.
I look forward to seeing how the new, faster game pans out. It’s true the game needs to move forward. But the best way to bring Snooker back in the public eye isn’t by changing the game. It’s by giving the players more exposure off the table.