The protagonists dress as if they were auditioning for jobs as cruise ship entertainers. The atmosphere has all the excitement of a wet Wednesday in Bognor; as for the pace of the game itself – well, put it like this: a bad game on a slow day makes the average funeral procession look like the Epsom Derby.
Small wonder, then, that Ronnie O’Sullivan, the world snooker champion, believes that the sport is in desperate need of some showbusiness flair to save it from a slow death.
Soon after beating Joe Perry 6-5 in the opening round of the Masters at Wembley Arena, he said: “I feel like I’m in a sport that has had its good days and is on a downward spiral.”
Few would argue. Crowds and television audiences are down, and the days when a great final such as the Dennis Taylor/Steve Davis clash of 1985 was watched by 18 million are long gone. Sponsorship is hard to come by; so much so that this year’s world championship at the Crucible in Sheffield has yet to attract a backer.
“The game is dying and, unless something happens, I ain’t going to these tournaments for £30,000.
“It needs someone with entrepreneurial skills like Simon Cowell, who is in the modern world and more dynamic,” O’Sullivan said. “If someone like Barry Hearn [Davis’s former manager] came in and took over the game and started doing with snooker what he has done with darts and made it interesting and lively, that might make coming to tournaments and my enthusiasm to play a little bit different.”
It is one thing, though, to say that snooker is in trouble; quite another to come up with ideas on what to do about it. The Times offers the following suggestions:
There aren’t any. O’Sullivan apart, the current generation of players are a pretty dull lot. The days of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins seem a distant memory. Where is the David Beckham of snooker? Find him, and sign him up immediately. As Max Clifford said: “There needs to be a public relations campaign to build awareness, build young stars, good-looking guys with attractive girlfriends who should be seen at movie premieres.”
Why not take the game upmarket? Anyone who plays snooker socially knows that you spend half the time chatting; why not take advantage of that, and invent an amalgam of the pro-celebrity match and the chat show? “Jonathan Ross would be perfect,” said Mark Borkowski, a PR agent. “It is a way of reinventing the chat-show format. When someone is lining up a key shot, you could ask them that question about their sex life.”
Darts has them; why can’t snooker? Instead of a boring man in white gloves dusting off the cue ball, it could be some mini-skirted lovely. The potential for suggestive behaviour is limitless – the cameramen will get into fistfights over who does the leaning-over-the-table shots – although it is possible that the purists might complain. Ignore them. They are the ones ruining it all, anyway.
The bow-tie look – it won’t really do, will it? Fine for singing Engelbert Humperdinck covers, not so good for the shiny, exciting sport of the future. Get some designers in. Let the players express their personalities through their wardrobe. Use John Galliano and anything could happen.
Snooker matches can take a lifetime, often not finishing until way after midnight. Speed it up: put them on the clock. Barry Hearn already does it with his Premier League on Sky, which has a 25-second clock and five time-outs per match. This concept could be taken even farther, with a cumulative clock, so that a slow player could be left with only seven seconds for his last shot.
Darts takes the showbusiness thing seriously, with the players entering the arena to their own signature tunes. Why not snooker players? Ronnie O’Sullivan could have Johnny Cash’s The Man In Black, or possibly Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, while Stephen Hendry might like Foreigner’s Cold as Ice. As for the devout Christian Shaun Murphy, he might just prefer a good hymn. The audience could even join in. It could be better than church.