Archive for the ‘snooker’ Category

Snooker cues up China opportunity

While none of the four Chinese players in the main draw at the World Snooker Championships has made it through to the quarter-finals, it’s clear that snooker is developing rapidly in the Chinese market. Other sports will want to learn from this success but may find it difficult to replicate the specific attributes which have benefited snooker.

According to a Chinese journalist quoted by the BBC, 15 TV channels are showing the World Championships in China and there are now between 500 and 1,000 clubs in Beijing alone. Increasing numbers of Chinese fans have also been evident in the crowd in Sheffield.

The top-ranked Chinese player is Ding Junhui who is currently tenth but has previously been as high as fourth. He reached the semi-finals last year and had been considered one of the favourites for 2012 until he lost out in the first round. Although he has been based in Sheffield for some years, the younger contingent of Chinese players now making their mark have spent most of their junior years competing in China.

Just a couple of days ago, it was announced that a new tournament would be held later this year in China with the third largest prize money of any snooker event. With several ranking tournaments now scheduled in China, the sport seems to be determined to make the most of local interest.

So why has snooker made such progress when attempts by some other sports to develop in China seem to have faltered?

- Most importantly, snooker had no choice but to embrace the Chinese opportunity. When Barry Hearn took control of the sport in 2010, revenue and interest had been fading for a number of years. The emergence of Ding Junhui and other Chinese players presented a clear opportunity to host more events in China and to offer players wild card entries to tournaments
- Role models count for a lot. Numerous Chinese players and their families have seen Ding on TV and evidently invested significant amounts of time and money to compete on the Asian circuit with a view to reaching the highest level
- Facilities are not too expensive or complex to set up and an indoor sport which takes up limited space is an attractive leisure option in a big city with a harsh climate, such as Beijing
- Snooker provides cheap and (for fans like me) compelling television content enabling World Snooker and regional federations to screen plenty of hours of coverage to TV stations in China as well as numerous other countries, particularly through Eurosport

It would be no surprise to see a Chinese world champion soon but it won’t be in 2012. Belgian teenager Luca Brecel is also a hot prospect for the future. British players such as Judd Trump, losing finalist last year, should take their opportunity while they can.

World Snooker: Judd Trump in the role of fearless newcomer

21 year-old Judd Trump, who has been narrowly defeated in the final of the World Snooker Championships, played the familiar sporting role of the fearless newcomer attempting to overturn the established order.

He was up against three times world champion John Higgins. Higgins has been in the top six for 15 years whereas Trump was ranked 24th before the start of the current championship.

When sports fans are “neutral” – that is to say without any allegiance to a particular competitor based on their nationality or team – they often instinctively have a preference for either the veteran champion or the young upstart. As a rule, the majority favour the youngster, perhaps because sport needs a constant supply of new talent.

Even John Higgins acknowledged in an interview about Judd “he’s the new wonderboy the sport’s been looking for”. Meanwhile Trump, who is generally diplomatic, hinted at what he really thinks when he said “a lot of the top players are getting a bit older and there are more gaps for people to come through”.

Conforming to tradition, the younger player is full of daring and panache, showing “no fear” in his first semi-final appearance. In contrast, as befits the older player, John Higgins is a “consummate tactician”.

It is curious how perfectly the two players have fulfilled these stock sporting roles. In golf you could contrast Rory McIlroy (inevitably described at the US Masters as “fearless”) and Matteo Manassero with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who were said to be making “a last stand against the fearless kids”.

In men’s tennis a few years ago the dominant champion Roger Federer faced the upstart Rafael Nadal. Now they and Novak Djokovic comprise the established order but one day they will face a new challenger. No doubt he too will be fearless.

It would be harsh to criticise either media or fans for repeated stereotyping as there is clearly a link with the natural order of things: the confident young man wants to prove he has come of age while the older man fears that a loss against a younger rival will be a sign of his own mortality.

It’s not so different in the world of the arts, politics or business where the established leaders also eventually face a challenge from impetuous youth and commentators are perpetually trying to identify the next star. In international sport, however, the shift from the old to the new generation is often particularly abrupt and brutal. No wonder it’s the older generation who are fearful.

On this occasion it was experience that prevailed over youthful promise: the wily old pro hangs on for another year.

Alex Higgins and the maverick dilemma

The sad death of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, who played an important role in popularising snooker in the 1970s and 80s, highlights a dilemma familiar to many sports governing bodies: how to deal with mavericks. Higgins combined outrageous talent with wildly destructive behaviour,  endearing him to fans but causing endless trouble to the authorities.

As the obituaries point out, his behaviour went well beyond the type of clowning around or tantrums that are sufficient to label an athlete a “character” in these days of robotic professionalism. The BBC describes his “violent temper, drunkenness, gambling and [recreational] drug-taking”.

However, his popularity was not in doubt. In 1982 he was runner up in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition. A current star of the sport, Ronnie O’Sullivan, said Higgins was one of the inspirations behind him getting into snooker as a boy.

He was charged with disciplinary breaches almost 50 times by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. Among his offences were head-butting a referee and making a death threat against a fellow player.

It’s difficult to see how a sports governing body or federation can deal with such an individual. On the one hand they have to keep some kind of control over their sport; on the other, they don’t want to ban or drive away one of their most valuable assets.

Football clubs and some other professional sports are all too aware of the temptations on offer to suddenly wealthy and famous young men. Good coaches act as mentors and may have a parental-type role but at some point the athletes have to take responsibility for their own actions, particularly away from sports competition.

Governing bodies, further removed from the daily lives of the athletes, have limited options. They will probably be criticised for being too lenient, too stringent, or for exploiting players, thus exacerbating the problem. Of course, their jurisdiction is also restricted to what goes on in and around their sport.

In my view, two broad principles apply for governing bodies. Firstly, they should ensure that the demands they make of young athletes do not amount to exploitation. Secondly, there must be support to encourage rehabilitation after an offence has been committed.

Unfortunately, even fair rules and well-intentioned administrators won’t always be enough to prevent maverick individuals from self-destructing and in the end it may not be the governing body that pays the price.

The main victim of Alex Higgins’ behaviour was the man himself.

Snooker betting scandal: shared blame?

On Sunday 2 May, British newspaper the News of the World published an exclusive story about 2009 World Snooker Champion John Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney seemingly accepting an offer of payments in return for deliberately losing frames in future tournaments.

The video evidence looks bad – John Higgins suggests ways that a payment could reach him without raising suspicions – and the allegations are very damaging for a professional sport that has suffered a significant decline in recent years. However, it is worth considering briefly how the alleged deal came about.

According to the news article, the undercover reporters initially lured John Higgins and his manager to Kiev to talk about the wholly legitimate World Snooker Series. Higgins and his manager, who deny the allegations, say that they felt intimidated by the situation in which they found themselves and believed the safest approach was to go along with the deal. The newspaper claims to have raised the issue of match-fixing with Pat Mooney at previous meetings and promises more revelations next week.

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association is conducting an investigation and there may be other enquiries as well so it is too early to draw full conclusions but for the moment it looks as if the undercover reporters have created a scandal, not necessarily exposed one. It will be interesting to see if the conduct of the reporters is scrutinised as thoroughly as that of Higgins and Mooney.

Gambling has been inextricably linked to sport for at least 200 years but the industry has grown enormously since the 1980s. In fact, onling betting company Betfred.com took on the title sponsorship of the World Snooker Championships last year in a four year deal.

Although betting and sport can and do co-exist without any problems, the risks posed by the industry to the integrity of sport are undeniable. According to an article in The Independent last year, industry watchdog the Gambling Commission has investigated numerous cases of alleged match-fixing and illegal betting relating to British sporting events. Around the world evidence of match-fixing has been uncovered in a number of professional sports, including football, tennis, baseball and cricket.

Whether the News of the World investigation helps or hinders the work that governing bodies and the betting industry are doing to tackle the problem is a matter of opinion but spare a thought for Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott, whose battle to reach the final of the 2010 Betfred.com World Snooker Championships has been completely over-shadowed.

36 shots of sporting perfection

It’s rare in any walk of life to be able so say in a meaningful way that somebody has achieved perfection.  That is what snooker legend Stephen Hendry managed today when he scored a maximum clearance of 147 in the Betfred World Snooker Championships

For the uninitiated, that means Stephen Hendry played 36 consecutive shots without error, potting 15 red balls, each followed by a black ball and then the six colour balls in sequence. His opponent Shaun Murphy played one slightly careless shot to begin the frame (game) and then sat in his chair for the next 12 minutes while Hendry cleared the table (TV viewers in the UK can see a full recording).

Maximum breaks in snooker are relatively rare but becoming less so. Hendry has now hit 9 of them, a record he shares with Ronnie O’Sullivan. According to Wikipedia, there were 8 breaks of 147 in the 1980s, 26 in the 1990s, and there have been 34 since the start of the year 2000. The gradual increase is evidence of rising standards of performance, partly motivated by the large bonuses on offer (Hendry was rewarded with £147,000 for his feat).  

Sport is full of brief moments of perfection – any goal scored, any putt that goes into the hole, any ace in tennis – but it is rare to string them together in such a way. Stephen Hendry has won the world title 7 times so he knows more about perfection than most.

Snooker is popular in the UK and Ireland, although at a lower level than in the 1980s, and it has gained a valuable foothold in China, thanks to Chinese players creeping up the world rankings. If talented players from other countries could somehow emerge then it would have potential to expand considerably because it makes for compelling television that is cheap to produce. It attracts a diverse audience (a family friend aged 95 is an avid fan) when a couple of the biggest tournaments are shown each year on the BBC and Eurosport.

The development challenge is a considerable one: without major sponsorship it is hard to justify spending limited resources on an international programme which might not bear fruit for a number of years. And yet without leading players from a wider range of countries, snooker seems destined to remain primarily a British and Irish phenomenon. 

Australian Neil Robertson is the only player from outside the British Isles in the quarter-finals of the World Championships this year. It might be best for the sport if he ended up the winner, or perhaps Chinese player Ding Junhui could win it next year. But first they’ll have to get past Stephen Hendry.