“Now and again I like an easy job – and this is an easy job.” That was sports entrepreneur and general all-round business genius Barry Hearn talking in 2010 after being appointed chairman of the World Snooker Association (WSA). Many thought he’d gone bonkers to take the job on at the time – even his close friend and former protege Steve Davis expressed his doubts live on the BBC – such was the slump in popularity the game had experienced. Fast forward to the present, and how is the “job” – to restore snooker back to something like its former glory – going? With another world championship at the Crucible Theatre looming, let’s take a look.
When Hearn took over, the game was still very much in the doldrums. Attendances were poor, save for the real prestige tournaments on the calendar, prize money had dried up somewhat and general interest levels were a shadow of what they had been 25, or even 15 years previously. Commentators and pundits would do their best to convince you otherwise, often exclaiming after a decent long pot “now you try and tell me that snooker’s boring”.
If anyone was going to try and sell it to the public at large, it had to be Hearn. After the way he’d pulled darts from the abyss in the early 1990s by creating what is now the highly lucrative PDC, not to mention cashed in on snooker’s own golden era in the 80s, there couldn’t possibly be a better man for the job. But this was always going to be a much harder task. In 1990, a young Scot by the name of Stephen Hendry was starting to make a name for himself. Such was the sheer ruthlessness of his genius, it demanded a level of professionalism the like of which had never been seen before on the green baize. Out went the constant banter with the crowd, the gentle mickey-taking of the referees; we were now witnessing the rise of the machines. Now, there are many who would argue that point by pointing out that Steve Davis wasn’t exactly exciting. True, ‘The Nugget’ was far from flamboyant, but there was always a playful side to the relentless pursuit of silverware which made him highly marketable. As the 90s wore on, the ‘personalities’ were gradually fading, taking snooker’s popularity with them.
Once the new millennium was in full swing, it had reached possibly its lowest ebb, in stark contrast to darts which was well on its way to becoming the behemoth that it is today. When the latter faced its darkest days, it was mainly to do with its poor image. When Hearn became involved, he played to its strengths, particularly in terms of the crazy atmosphere a booze-soaked crowd can create. The trouble with snooker is that, despite the efforts to introduce walk-on music, once the noise stops the crowd are then reduced to a hush until the frame is over. It can also be an extremely complex, tactical affair, whereas in darts you either hit the target or you don’t.
But there have been vast improvements over the last seven years. There are more televised tournaments than ever before, with ITV4 and Eurosport having joined the BBC in broadcasting the sport. This has led to more prize money, more youngsters taking up the game and a new-found global popularity which has generated bigger audiences both live and in households. In fact, it’s this global popularity that has probably been the most impressive feature of snooker’s overall development, with China now like a second home outside the UK and Ireland. Such is the fanaticism out there that an estimated 210m people tuned in to watch the 2016 World Championship, swelling the worldwide audience to 400m.
Although a whopping 18.5m watched the infamous black ball final between Davis and Dennis Taylor in 1985, a figure that will almost certainly never be equalled for a single match, those statistics mean that snooker is in a far healthier state than it was back in 2010, which we will see evidence of when the World Championship begins this weekend. To answer the original question posed in the title, those heady days of yesteryear will probably never be emulated, but we are certainly closer than we’ve ever been for the best part of two decades and that’s an achievement in itself.