Follow the Money

The truth behind Ronnie O’Sullivan’s provocative 146

I hadn’t planned on doing this. Really. After all, how many pieces on snooker can one guy write? But Ronnie O’Sullivan, of all people, forced my hand: his cheeky 146, and its aftermath, seemed the perfect demonstration of all that is wrong with the world of professional snooker.

O’Sullivan, for those of you who live in a snooker-free zone, provocatively passed up the opportunity to score a perfect 147 during Monday’s Welsh Open encounter with Barry Pinches. That’s like a bowler deliberately rolling a gutterball after 11 successive strikes, or a pitcher striding off the mound after retiring 26 straight batters. Why would anyone do such a thing?

“I knew the prize money for a 147 was just £10,000, and I just thought that’s a bit too cheap, really. To make a maxi, it’s such a massive achievement, and I think it’s worth a bit more than that. Once the prize goes up a bit, I’ll go for the 147. A 146 is just as good.”

Social media, predictably, lit up. Barry Hearn, the bombastic chairman of World Snooker, reacted furiously, calling O’Sullivan’s actions “unacceptable” and “disrespectful”. Hearn later mellowed his tone, ruminating about O’Sullivan’s “personality” and “character”, as if he was some sort of snooker savant, acting in his own private cloud cuckoo land.

Meanwhile, populist anger mounted: Who the hell did O’Sullivan think he was, demeaning the value of £10,000? That might not mean a lot to coddled snooker millionaires, but to the average person, that was an awful lot of money. If he felt so strongly about it, he could have made the maximum and given the money to charity.

O’Sullivan himself was forced by the ensuing frenzy to back up, announcing the following day that he was “just having a bit of fun”, and musing that he probably should have tried for the 147 after all and given the winnings to charity.

And yet another opportunity to actually shine a critical light on snooker’s seamier side passes us by.

Because O’Sullivan was, of course, absolutely right: £10,000 for achieving snooker’s highest achievement in a ranking event is much, much too low.

Furthermore, it is not the first time he has explicitly pointed this out in dramatic fashion: he nearly didn’t finish his 147 during the 2010 World Open for the same reason, needing to be persuaded to do so by referee Jan Verhaas (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvxCLqD996o).

The fact that £10,000 is a princely sum for most of us is about as relevant to the matter at hand as comparing Ronaldo’s salary to the Prime Minster’s. Snooker is a business. Or at least it should be. Ronnie’s point happens to be the same one that I have tried so hard to make in my two recent articles on the subject (Foul and a Miss and Fixing Snooker): it is a business that is, quite simply, terribly run, with very little of the monies trickling down to those who actually do it.

So before we start confusing the issue with talk of charities and greed and personal wealth, let’s just calm down and ask a few basic questions.

How much money does snooker’s governing body receive from tournaments, sponsorship, TV licensing, and other matters? How much does each tournament clear? How much do the TV stations make in advertising revenue during snooker events? What is, roughly, the worth of the net international television rights? And how much of that comes down to the players themselves?

In a previous post I mentioned that David Grace, the surprising semi-finalist of the prestigious UK Championships, was forced to clean tables to make ends meet. Meanwhile, allegations of match-fixing are omnipresent, which any social scientist will tell you naturally follows from the current financial incentive structure for players.

There is no a priori reason why snooker players should make significant amounts of money. Lots of skilful, dedicated, highly accomplished people don’t. My guess is that the standard salary of most pole-vaulters, chess players or literary translators is pretty underwhelming, not to mention teachers, nurses and policemen.

Fortunately for snooker, it so happens that the international market for the game is very large — and growing. The television audience for major events now numbers in the hundreds of millions. Most of that is in Asia, but there are other places — like Germany and parts of eastern Europe — where snooker is increasingly gathering support.

Unfortunately for the players, however, they are burdened by a terrible administrative structure led by bumbling incompetents who seem both unwilling and unable to elevate the game to the next level to the benefit of players and fans alike.

In short: Ronnie O’Sullivan’s behaviour is far from unacceptable. But Barry Hearn’s is.

This piece was written by Howard Burton, founding executive director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and current CEO and host of Ideas Roadshow , howard@ideasroadshow.com.

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