The World Snooker chairman Sir Rodney Walker tells The National his aggressive plans for the sport.
New proposals on the table
He does not play the game professionally, but in his role as the chairman of World Snooker, Sir Rodney Walker, seems to attract as much scrutiny as its leading protagonists. Three days before the balls start being sunk at this year's world championship, a British broadsheet newspaper yesterday questioned Walker's scruples in his role as the sport's custodian.
An article titled "why snooker's finances have gone to pot" claimed Walker and a company he owns have earned more than £370,000 (Dh2million) from the sport over the past three years. It branded such a situation "astonishing" after several staff members at World Snooker were recently sacked apparently due to the financial crisis enveloping the sport. Critics have been beating the organisation over the head with the butt end of a cue by asking how a sport with such mass appeal can lack finance.
Far from needing to be rescued, snooker's struggle seems to be in outing itself in the way golf's European Tour managed in the 1980s, or even how darts has reinvented itself. Snooker is the second most popular sport in China behind basketball. Television audiences of 100million regularly watch tournaments in China. It has vast viewing audiences on the satellite broadcaster Eurosport, who have marvelled in its interest in countries such as Germany and Poland.
The main criticism seems to be channelling its popularity into a force for good by raising awareness and attracting money. It is ironic that most of the problems relating to sponsorship seem to be stationed in the United Kingdom, the sport's traditional home. Whatever adjectives are used to describe Walker or whatever is made of his business acumen, one can hardly question his desire to see the sport succeed and increase its popularity through the world championship.
Ronnie O'Sullivan will chase a fourth title when this year's tournament begins at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield on Saturday. It will start with a new sponsor, and a pot of £2m (Dh11m) over four years. The UK Championship and the Masters have been left without sponsorship in recent times, prompting a need to carry the sport to new destinations. Walker has welcomed Dubai's interest in hosting the world championship in 2011 but is keen to safeguard the existing contract with the BBC. Snooker returned to the Middle East with the Bahrain championship last November after a 14-year absence, but Walker is wary of packing up the suitcase and making snooker a permanent fixture overseas.
"People don't seem to understand that it is not just the money that is on the table, it is the consequence in relation to the BBC contract," said Walker. "It is a contract that is very valuable to world snooker, and if it moves out of the UK then the TV contract may be put at risk. "That is the most important contract we have, but it is obviously of great importance to us if there is interest in places like the United Arab Emirates.
"Last year, we did a tournament in Bahrain. We are presently looking at another tournament in the Gulf - not the Emirates - for the next season. "Commercially, the Bahrain tournament was a success but we paid for it. What we are hoping for is that people will sponsor a event. "I have no doubt that if we are patient and have the right partners, we can establish snooker and some ranking events in the Gulf region. My medium-term ambition is to have two events in the Gulf region as permanent fixtures."
Walker's remit was brought into sharp focus by the world champion O'Sullivan during the Masters in January when he claimed the sport was dying due to a lack of entertainment. He called on the television personality Simon Cowell to give it the X factor, but Walker remains at the helm after five years. World Snooker's response has been to champion a shorter format of matches, the 'Super6' that will see frames of six reds rather than the traditional 15, a bit like Twenty20 cricket. It will be experimented during the world championship, a tournament that sold out three weeks ago.
"I'm looking to the Super6, and also to change the way the ranking points work, so we have smaller tournaments that our leading players can chose whether to play in, a bit like golf," said Walker. Walker can usually be discovered on the final night of the world championship standing with the winner. After the brickbats that been tossed in his direction in recent times, he may be happy just to be standing by the sport.