Welcome to the first of a two part Snooker Island Christmas special!
WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson kindly found time away from his hectic schedule to be interviewed for Snooker Island.
Most of you will recognise him as the chap who presents the trophy to the winner at the end of a tournament. Some of you will recognise him for giving both Stephen Hendry and John Higgins a big scare in round 1 at the Crucible in years when they went on to lift the title. But there is a lot more to him than that!
As WPBSA Chairman he is effectively in charge of the game of snooker as we know it, and his ideas on how the game should be run are revolutionising the sport in front of our very eyes. So what makes him tick, and what changes can we expect to see over the coming season and seasons?
In part 1 Jason reflects on his own playing career and how his experiences are influencing the decisions he is making today. He also explains how he first became involved in snooker politics and why he accepted a return to the Chairmanship after several years away from the sport.
In part 2 Jason shares his vision for the future including everything from money lists and flat 128 draw structures to wildcards and qualifying venues, and much more besides.
Part 1 – Meet the Chairman
What are your earliest memories of snooker?
I was 12 years old when I first picked up a snooker cue and it was on a holiday at Butlins with my father, and I just fell in love with the game then and there. I suppose when talking about watching on TV a big influence on my life was watching Steve Davis win his first world title. I read his book, and from there the game just grabbed me and mesmerised me and I fell in love with it and couldn’t leave it alone!
What lead to you turning professional and how old were you?
Do you know I actually turned professional on my 21st birthday! I had quite a decent amateur career and I left school at 16. I didn’t really take to school that much; contrary to public opinion I’m actually not that well educated! But, I’ve made my way in life.
I left school and worked part time and did the usual thing and ended up working in a snooker club for a while. Through that I was just playing local league and getting better and better and it was just a dream really.
I remember I was 15 and I was interviewed at school by my careers adviser. They used to come in to school and sit a child down for 5 minutes and they’d ask them “So what do you want to do, son?” and I said to him “I want to be a professional snooker player” and I remember him laughing at me, and he made a comment like “You may as well have said you want to be an astronaut, let’s get real son” you know, it was that kind of comment, and I felt pretty devastated by it!
I certainly wasn’t the best player in Nottinghamshire at the time, that was Gary Wilkinson. He was very influential to me in my career and I always looked up to him as a player because he was a little bit older than me and little bit further into his career.
So I was playing in local leagues and actually grew very quickly. I was 16 when I made my first century break, which is really late particularly by today’s standards, but by 21 I had actually qualified for the professional tour. I was runner up to Ken Doherty in the World Junior Championship in Iceland in 1989 and I won the Pontins Mercantile Credit in 1988, and then qualified through the old pro-ticket system where you had to become one of the top 8 amateurs in the world and then you had to beat a bottom 8 professional.
There were 128 professionals on the tour but there were about 700 players playing on the amateur circuit at the time in pro-ams. Every time there was a pro-am on the place was packed, and there were some great players in those pro-ams like Ken Doherty, Peter Ebdon, John Birch, and the list goes on and on, and obviously some of them went on to become household names. So it was a very tough amateur game, and there are a number of players at the top of the game now who withstood the test of time and they came from that era.
So I got all the way through and amazingly I almost lost my qualifying match against a bottom 8 professional! Can you imagine that after getting all the way through?! It was a player called Billy Kelly and he’s actually still a very good player, and I was 7-5 down to him and won 10-7. And that’s how I got on the circuit so it was a great day and it was my 21st birthday as well!
That’s a very tough way to get on tour!
It was incredibly tough but when I look back it’s been very influential in my career as a director. There are things I’ve learned from the way the game used to be that I’ve brought forward into some of the decisions we’ve made in the way the tour works now.
The one thing we were doing back then is we were playing 3 or 4 times a week. We used to play a pro-am on a Saturday, a pro-am on a Sunday, and then we’d play a small invitation event in a club somewhere during the week where we’d all put £100 in and play for it. We were full time; we were playing full time and although we were amateurs we were all playing every single day, somewhere. And that’s one thing you see on the tour now.
I know a few players complain about it but actually the majority are enjoying competing on a regular basis. I’ve had a number of comments recently saying it’s good to be playing all the time again. It’s been a number of years since we did that so it must be fabulous coming into the game now with the opportunities that are there.
Your career highlights I guess will be seen as reaching the Crucible 3 times. You lost by the same score 10-8 to Neal Foulds in ‘92 then eventual winners Hendry in ‘96 and Higgins in ‘98. Tough draws and close matches!
That’s right. The Neal Foulds game was a real learning curve for me and it was my first time at the Crucible. I was quite a timid player and quite a timid person back then. To think how I’ve changed as a person since then because now I’m quite happy to be in public and I’m quite happy to speak in public but back then I was quite a shy boy!
So to walk out into the Crucible for the first time was just unbelievable, I could barely hold my cue and walk, it was amazing! I was so far behind in that match and I eventually came back and we battled it out and I lost 10-8.
But it was a stepping stone for me at the time and I loved it. I loved the big occasion and always felt like I could perform on the big occasion, and as you say I went back and I played Hendry, and to be honest I was well in front! I take nothing away from Hendry and he was absolutely superb in the second session, he scored so heavily and made a number of century breaks from nothing. But I was 6-3 up after the first session and Hendry was the best player in the world at the time.
It sounds like he took you a bit for granted?
To be honest I was always capable really, I scored heavily when I had a chance, I got on with it and was quite a fluent player once I got going, and I suppose I was always a player other people knew could do some damage if the chance had arisen.
So I was 6-3 up and I was on 40 in the next frame and I potted the black and split the reds and a red went in the middle. And he cleared up and then amazingly, exactly the same thing happened in the next frame! I was on 40 again and split the pack and another red went in the middle and he cleared up again! I can remember it like it was yesterday, but I’m over it now of course!
Of course! You came close to beating him again in the UK when he was World Champion in 1999, losing 9-8.
I did, and I have to say I threw that game away! There’s a story behind that though because my wife was pregnant at the time with our first son and in the middle of the night we ended up in Bournemouth hospital and my son Eliot was born that night and I actually went straight from the hospital to my hotel room, put my evening suit on and went straight out and played Hendry, without sleeping!
And I was 8-5 in front and I was 60 in front in at least 2 of the frames after that, and again not taking anything away from him because he did play great, but I let him off the hook!
Does he ever rib you about it?
No but do you know it’s funny because I hadn’t seen him for a while and I bumped into him at the UK Championships and he made a comment about the only games you remember are the ones you lose, and he’s right!
Do you still play for fun?
No not at all. I have the odd shot here and there as you’re passing a table, but I haven’t played at all now for what must be about 7 years. I do miss it, you do miss playing and especially being around it all the time, but then you see somebody have one of the biggest hard luck stories you’ve ever seen on a table and you think actually, I don’t miss it!
You got involved in snooker politics when you were still a player. What instigated your move into politics and what was it like trying to play professionally and juggle the responsibilities?
It became impossible to be honest and it certainly ended my playing career. Whilst I didn’t realise it at the time it put my career into decline. I was still a top 32 player when I joined the board with the potential of being an event winner, because I was one of those players who was knocking on the door each time and looking like going a bit further.
I beat Hendry in the Regal Welsh shortly after that match in the UK Championships so I was going quite strong at the time, but the politics within the game at the time were terrible. You could split the room and half the players would be on one side of the room and half on the other, and it was very bitter.
I was asked by a number of players would I be a representative on the board for them. And the board then was predominantly made up of players that had been retired for many many years. So I was asked to do that and I was also asked by people who I have a lot of respect for, Terry Griffiths was one who asked me would I be willing to do it. So I did, I put my name forward and I was a players’ representative which is effectively the role Steve Davis and Ken Doherty do now.
It was very much a non-executive role but I loved my work. I love my work now and I loved it back then, so it lead me down a different road. I enjoyed doing what I was doing, I was working closely with the BBC at the time and I think we made some differences. We instigated the Young Players of Distinction programme and there was a bit of a buzz around at the time, things were changing but the politics were deep rooted.
It was never the individuals that were at fault within snooker over the years, I mean you can look back and say this was wrong or that was wrong, but it was the structure that was wrong and it was so easy to see for me. Especially coming back a second time, it was a fundamental problem with the structure and how the structure was restricting the growth of the business.
I was one of the instigators in setting up World Snooker Limited as a separate commercial company, some time ago. The idea of that company was to do exactly what is in place now, to broker deals with promoters, investor partners, and actually try and grow the commercial rights away from the governing body.
Unfortunately perhaps the timing was wrong back then and I actually ended up resigning over it. I felt that the situation was becoming helpless really, and also having a young family at home was adding pressures so it was a case of a change being needed in my life.
But I worked my way through from a players’ director and eventually became vice-chairman to Mark Wildman, and then Mark stepped down and I stepped up to become Chairman. I was Chairman for a period of six months, and it was a very difficult time.
We can go back to all the court cases and what was going on in the sport and all I can say is that it was great experience for me. I’ve been to court many times and been involved in a lot of litigation over the years with what’s happened, and it gives you the experience and the confidence to do whatever you do, and now I’ve had the opportunity to come back.
After you resigned as Chairman you were away from the game for a while before Barry Hearn coaxed you back in in 2010. Was it an easy decision to come back and what was it that convinced you to do so?
No it wasn’t an easy decision. Every year I attended the AGM and I retained my membership of the WPBSA because I thought that one day, you just never know maybe I’ll play in the World Championships, or maybe there will be a senior’s tour. So I kept up that membership and every year I’d go to the AGM and I’d wish the board Merry Christmas, I’d say hello to all my old friends and I’d leave, and then I’d come back the following year. It was nice.
And this particular year the AGM was packed and obviously the game was facing some difficult decisions and I was taken by surprise a bit. And it was shortly after that Sir Rodney went, and then the phone started ringing for me and there were players, and there were managers, and Barry himself, and a number of people contacted me and asked me would you be willing to come back and try and broker a deal between Matchroom Sport and the game.
For me there was a great sense of unfinished business because this was something I wanted to do. I was actually Chairman of World Snooker Ltd, the role that Barry is in now, 8 or 9 years ago because obviously I wanted to be instrumental then in breaking the game up into what we’ve got now.
But this new approach was a difficult decision because to be quite honest I’d built a whole life outside of snooker. I’ve got some business interests, I’ve done some property regeneration work in my town, and we’ve been very successful. I was involved in a project called the Energy Village which created 1500 jobs in my town over a 10 year period and off the back of that I became involved in local politics, and when I was asked to come back to World Snooker I was actually the mayor of my town. So it was a difficult decision because I was on a political career where the likely outcome is that I would have been running for MP.
So I was at a crossroads where I thought that do I really want to dip back in to the politics of snooker, or should I carry on doing what I’m doing now?
But Barry and I met at the World Championships that year and we talked and he asked me what my thoughts were and I asked him what his thoughts were and ironically we saw eye to eye straight away. That was the first time we sat down and discussed what we thought was the right thing for the game, and having been at that crossroad to make that decision 10 years ago and knowing that the game hadn’t really moved on much because it didn’t happen, it was a no-brainer for me. It was all about putting the deal together and making sure that deal perfected the sport and the members and the players and that’s what I did.
So I came back very much part time as a non-exec Chairman to broker that deal and I suppose really it’s completely consumed my life! I must work 100 hours a week now, it never stops! I deal with so many different countries and so many different time zones and I travel a lot and look after most of the Far East now as well, all of the China agreements and things like that along with our Commercial Director Miles Pearce, I do all of that now and I love it, I love my work!
Around the time Barry took over, snooker discussion forums on the internet seemed to be full of people like for example 110sport people trying to influence people’s opinions towards an alternative to Barry.
Well I had no axe to grind when I came in. I was so far removed from snooker when I was asked to come and broker this deal which really made me the right person to do it. I had the experience of knowing the sport, I’d gained the business experience in the other things I’d done off the table, and coming back I was completely independent. If 110sport or anybody else had come to the table with a deal which was appropriate, that deal would have been done, there’s no question about it.
The thing about the Hearn deal is that people say “It’s Barry” but it’s actually Matchroom Sport and there are over 50 employees in Matchroom Sport all giving a percentage of their time to what we do. The deal is much bigger than what people see at face value. Matchroom Sport for me, and I’ve dealt with a few of these companies over the years, but in terms of TV and distribution and rights sales and what they do, for me they are the best in the World.
Moving on to the topic of the moment then and flat 128 draws where all players enter in Round 1… (to be continued)
Reproduction of the interview is encouraged but please include link to this original article