Interview with WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson 2/2

by Roland Cox

Part 2 – Share the Vision

Jason Ferguson congratulates Antwerp PTC winner Mark Allen (photo by Monique Limbos)

All ranking events except the Shanghai Masters, Australian Open and World Championships will be played under the flat 128 structure next season, so can you give us an overview as to how this will work in practice?

I don’t think anybody can argue with the principle of what we’re all trying to create, and that is a fair and open system. Now in practice there are some difficulties with that and if you look in terms of the numbers you’ve got in round one for example, we’ve been talking about:

1. Creating a new venue or a substantially improved facility to house some qualifying rounds, but

2. that the events end up like a Wimbledon format, like we do in the Paul Hunter Classic and I’ll just use that one as the example.

When we go out to Germany for the Paul Hunter Classic, there are 128 in the draw. There’s outside tables and then there’s the main arena. I think the long term dream is that that is what we could create, and certainly that’s what our operations guys now have gone out to look at.

It is feasible to do it. We would effectively be looking for 1-64 being seeded apart, and then there would be some differences in the seeding system where the best thing would be that the rest are drawn at random. And obviously under an ever evolving ranking system that is sure to throw up a number of different draws.

So in principle that is what it is. It’s quite basic and it has to be the fairest system of all. I think the situation is though that there are going to be times where let’s say we have a new event in India. The likelihood is that we will want to hold over two of those matches for the Indian players. And I’m sure that that will eventually happen in China as well where they will want to hold over some of their best matches for the final stages. So we’ll certainly have to accommodate for a few extra matches at the venue.

Some of the players to be fair are raising concerns over that and asking whether it’s fair or not because it’s possible you could get the seeds in round 2 always playing at the venue. That is certainly a concern of mine as well, I think there are some issues there which we’ll need to iron out. But the bottom line is that the players who win more matches will go to the top and the players who lose will fall by the wayside.

Beneath this one of my main roles is looking at how the sport is developing underneath the tour that you see on TV. There are now 87 national governing bodies for snooker worldwide, and we have a very close relationship with a large number of those. We have qualifying structures overseas and we’re working closely with the amateur game to try and make sure that the best players come through, and that the opportunities are there.

If a player from say Jordan or the Middle East or anywhere else wants to be a professional snooker player, there has to be a career path for that person to qualify. And over the years there just hasn’t been the opportunity. Without having somebody to pay for that person to go and live in the UK for 3 or 4 years to see if they can make it, there just hasn’t been that opportunity, and I’m pleased to say that that is changing, fast.

Do you see a time then where there could be qualification spots for big events like the World Championships taking place in satellite qualifying events around the world?

I wouldn’t rule it out. It is possible it could end up that way but what I can tell you is that we are growing at a rate which is unbelievable! The amount of people taking this game up in parts of the world that have never played before is amazing. It is very encouraging from where I’m sat. The future for us is in participation. If you maximise participation then the sport will grow, and that’s where I am focussing a lot of my efforts.

So it is possible that we will end up with that. You’ve almost got that now. I mean if you look at the breakdown of the tour players, and if you talk about one issue with the players that are coming on, and also going back to my career as well, many years ago we used to have an amateur ranking system through the pro-am circuit. And it always worked well. The first thing all the players on the amateur circuit did, and there were a lot of them, was to go and get Snooker Scene. And the first thing you used to do was go to the back page where the amateur rankings were. “Where am I this month?” you know.

The encouragement that it gave people to climb a ranking system was incredible. You could get to the top and actually qualify for the tour. Out of that have come some of the ideas that we’ve got out there now.

I can remember it first hand as a player and how it enthused me to do better as an amateur, and we work closely with the European Billiards and Snooker Association (EBSA) and I have to say Jim Leacy and Maxime Cassis have been absolutely superb and they’ve effectively, with us, created the amateur ranking system in Europe.

So the EBSA ranking list has been running alongside the PTC ranking list through some amateur events that we’ve been running, and the top 3 qualifiers from that system will qualify for tour spots.

Snooker Island has a direct interest in that particular event actually because we sponsor one of the players who has qualified for the final stages, Ben Harrison.

I’m meeting Jim Leacy next week actually to finalise the details. There will be a qualifying event at our Academy on the 27th April.

During the World Championships?

Yes it is during the World Championships and what I would like to see is that the 3 qualifiers from that we could perhaps bring them down to the Crucible and have a chat with them and bring them into the venue and introduce them to what their future is going to hold.

I think that you have to inspire people in sport. You have to have something to play for. It’s no good just drifting on and waiting for the next tournament to come along, there has to be this continued development going on underneath the game to keep everybody competing.

And I’m pleased to see that it’s kept the entries up in the PTCs and that the (amateur) players who have entered the PTCs have had two events to enter and not just one, and it’s kept people going. So I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.

Why are there 3 events next season not being played with the flat 128 structure?

To be honest with you that is purely due to our contractual position. We started out with this program a couple of years ago knowing this is where we wanted to end up. We’ve obviously seen some considerable growth in the tour, particularly in the Far East with some of the new contracts we’ve taken on.

Now what we need to do is actually revisit some of those contracts and negotiate how we’re going to do the qualifying rounds, and also whether or not wildcards will go through to the final venues.

It is a big bug bear with the players and I have to say it’s a real concern of mine and I’m not a fan of it. I mean we bring wildcards in to the final stages of a ranking event and our members are on a hiding to nothing there. You’ve got good players, you know players like Jin Long who have played on the tour and beaten some great players, who you’ve now got to beat in a wildcard round when you get out there. If you’re playing for ranking points and have played in the top 16, 32, 64 and you’re playing someone who’s coming in and playing in front of his home crowd and who has not got the same pressures, then that for me is a major issue.

As part of this new structure, we believe that we will get to a stage where we don’t have the wildcards coming in as seeds in a later round. That’s certainly my target. Now in doing that we’ve really got to renegotiate those contracts and in Australia we are contractually bound to carry on as we are. We also know that in Shanghai, and we also know that we’re very limited as to what we can do in the World Championships. For now.

I wouldn’t rule out changes to that in the future. But certainly for now we know that we are restricted by those three contracts, and like any good business we will abide by those contracts and by whatever our contractual commitments are.

So taking the World Championships, obviously it’s not going to go on infinitely at the Crucible but it is seen as the home of snooker and no one really wants it to leave, so how could the flat 128 structure conceivably work whilst using the Crucible to play from the last 32? Would you use the badminton hall for example?

Yes well it is possible. One of the things I will say is that we are in talks with Sheffield City Council over our qualifying facilities. I believe that we have outgrown the facilities that we’ve got there now, which is why we’ve been staging the qualifiers in the badminton hall. The WPBSA independently of World Snooker has been funding the qualifying actually, and has been trying to improve those facilities for the players to give them all a fair chance.

If you look at that position, there’s a great argument to say that we need to reassess what our needs are with the 128 tour with more players and different round structures.

There’s an argument to say that we may need up to 16 tables. Now if we do, then what I don’t want to see is 16 cubicles if you’ve got top players playing in there. It has to be 16 arenas. It has to look proper and it has to be accessible to people.

I’m not talking hundreds per table but there has to be adequate seating for each table. I want the players to feel like snooker players. I don’t want them to feel like they’re locked in their garage! I want them to feel that they are in an event.

If we can achieve that then yes it is possible to achieve greater things for the World Championships. We could theoretically start the World Championships at the Crucible and at another venue for example. It is possible to run outside tables in a venue nearby with the main matches in the arena at the Crucible.

So it is possible to do it and I wouldn’t say we are anywhere near a cut and dried position on it but we’ll certainly be looking at how successful we are with the other events as to when we can move to that.

For me the Wimbledon format is the one that works. You know, let’s cut to the centre table, let’s see what’s going on on an outside court where, you know, John Higgins is 4-1 down to a newcomer. We’re looking for stories, we’re looking for new blood to come through, we’re looking for those exciting moments which create news for us. And I think that is possible to do.

At heart I am still a snooker player and I’m still quite traditional in the way the game is played and whilst we can be quite radical with structures, what we mustn’t do is change the fundamental principles of the game. Snooker is a great product!

Does World Snooker have any plans to try and encourage more people to go and watch live snooker rather than watching it on the television? From what you say about having events with all these matches going on at the same time, it sounds like it will allow the public to do a bit of roaming and not have to be rooted down to one place and sit and be quiet. As someone who has been to a number of different events, the experience of places like the badminton hall and SWSA and the Barbican (when you are allowed to sit in the balcony) where you can come and go as you please just so long as you are respectful to the players, is so much a better experience as a spectator to go and watch live snooker.

You are absolutely right. For me as an enthusiast, and I always consider myself to be a connoisseur of the sport and I will happily sit there all night and watch it, it is about the customer experience. If I come back to the Paul Hunter Classic again, you’ve got outside tables which you can watch, you’ve got a main match arena which you can watch, and you can float between the two. You can always go “such and such is about to go on table 3 in 10 minutes” and then you can get up and move.

For me, it’s all about the customer experience. You’ve got to give people a good night out. That’s the thing with live snooker, it’s not about going and sitting still and not speaking a word all night, it’s about customer experience and if we want to keep our customers then we’ve got to give them what they want. So sorry about the balcony!

 (laughs) no problem! Money lists. The flat 128 structure is the only structure where a money list can work fairly but would it not be easier to stick to a points based system and reassess their distribution rather than having to take into account exchange rates and which currency the money list is presented in?

That’s an interesting point and it’s certainly one Barry and I have had some debates over as well over recent months. For me the current ranking list does actually work in my opinion. I think it does service the game quite well but I appreciate that it is not that easy to understand for the general public.

But ranking systems never are, are they?

No they’re not and I’ve looked at the golf model and the tennis model and what they’re doing in those sports and actually the golf model is quite complicated. In fact I still don’t understand it now so maybe I will read it again. But Barry’s opinion on the money list is that everybody understands it. That’s how it is, that’s the amount of money and everybody knows what you’ve won, and I support that. I think that’s great but it has to be a fair system if that’s what we’re going to do. It has to be a flat draw, you can’t have seeding, you can’t see players through to rounds 3 and 4 because you’re effectively giving them ranking points. How can that be right? You know, it can’t be.

So there’s a couple of discussions we’ve been having about that and how we can make that work especially as we’re already a bit further than a half-way house if we have only 3 events which effectively still have the seeding system where we are effectively giving players ranking points for being seeded through. That’s an issue for us at the moment and one that we’ve not taken a final decision on.

There is a school of thought that if we’re going to throw everybody into round 1 then the top players deserve that bit of a start because they’ve earned it, but there’s also a school of thought that it’s completely absurd and everybody needs to start with zero. So there’s some debate on that and one of the things we will do is continue to consult with the players over it. We said we’d consult for two years over this and we’re well into that now and we have done. We’ve continually held players’ meetings and we’re always at tournaments to speak to and certainly my phone is switched on 24 hours a day.

The existing points system is very good but it faltered in the way it was presented which was confusing having one official list which wasn’t the one people were most interested in, and that ideally it needed more regular updates before each tournament in order to be completely fair.

That’s another thing actually, if you can say you’ve got this multi-table format then you can update the ranking list after every tournament because the qualifying for the next tournament won’t have already taken place. And that’s where we’re moving to. We’d like to get to a position where you’re almost running a live system all year. That would be fabulous for everybody.

With the money list system will events such as the Shootout, Premier League and Masters count towards the list?

No. Our initial outset is that the only events which can actually work for the money list are the main ranking events where everybody has the opportunity to play in them. I know you could argue that everybody has got the opportunity to get in the Masters but actually you haven’t. So if you keep seeding the players and giving them money for turning up in events where everybody else can’t play then there’s no way you’d be able to move them off the top. It completely defeats the object of what we’re trying to achieve.

We’ve seen this before with the old ranking system. The players were guaranteed so many points just for turning up they could effectively win 2 or 3 matches in a season and hold their ranking position. Going back to my career I remember I was up to 23 provisionally with a couple of events to go, and I was going strong and probably looking like I was going to get in the top 16 that year, and it was so difficult to shift those people above you at that point. You were winning 3 or 4 matches in every tournament at least, and you’ve got people above you who would win one match in every 3 tournaments and stay above you. That can’t possibly be right!

I do think the ranking system now does serve the game, but I do think that it’s still too complicated. I think it’s too difficult to work out the cut-off points and in particular we’ve got a calendar which is constantly evolving, as you’ve probably worked out!

We’ve constantly got new deals coming in, and I’m off out to the Far East and the Middle East the first week in January again. We’ve constantly got deals on the go which potentially can change that calendar and if you can create a ranking system and run it live all year then it has to be better.

Some people have hypothesised that the money list will encourage sponsors to stump up more prize money to add to the prestige of their chosen event. The obvious question then is what would happen if a sponsor put up more money for say the Welsh Open than is available at the World Championships? Would the Welsh Open suddenly be more important?

Well I can tell you first hand that that does happen. There have certainly been some offers made to me face to face for considerable sums. Now clearly whoever wants the biggest events, they’re going to have to pay the biggest prize money. And for me that will certainly drive the share price of that sport up. Now in doing that, we at this moment in time are very protective of the World Championships. We know we have an excellent relationship with Sheffield City Council, I’m quite a traditionalist actually on this point, and I think snooker should stay in Sheffield.

As long as Sheffield continues to support us and look after us and host us like they do now, I see no reason why we would want to move from there. A number of people have said wait till China offers you a big cheque for the World Championships. Well they might do that, and obviously that’s something we would always consider, but, what would that do for the game? What would that do for the tour?

This is a World Tour and I think even our relationship with the CBSA in China, and we have an excellent relationship out there, their issues are they want to be part of the World Tour as well. They don’t see World Snooker as a Chinese tour, they are part of the overall system. They want a World Champion, not a champion of China.

So for us all there is great importance in making sure the whole world is supporting snooker and for me, I’m a lover of snooker staying in Sheffield.

The PTCs have been a great success in giving the opportunities to the amateurs to test themselves against the best in the world and also to keep everyone match sharp. Will they continue as we know them in the immediate future or are there plans to phase out the UK based PTCs and upgrade some of the more popular Euro PTCs to full ranking events?

Well certainly we’ve sown seeds with the PTCs in some parts of the world and we’re looking at which ones have big potential and which ones will remain as they are. For me the PTC series has been fabulous. It’s done what it was set out to do and it’s got people competing again and it’s got people playing every week rather than every other month. It’s been great and I think there are two issues with the PTC series for me.

One is that we want to make sure the players feel like they’re playing in proper events. And I have to say now that a number of them do feel like that. Bulgaria was fantastic. Antwerp is another one which was played in a great arena; there was a great atmosphere in there. And they’ve got great potential. The Paul Hunter Classic in Germany is another and we’ve got the one in Munich coming up and they’ve got real potential these events, to grow.

Our vision for next year is that we will be looking at 8 PTCs as a European Tour. We’re calling them European Tour events, we’ll drop the name PTC and it will become the European Tour and the Asian Tour. We expect to end up with 4 in Asia and of the 8 in Europe it is still possible that two of those will remain in the UK. We’ve got various streaming deals and we’ve also got a broadcasting agreement with Eurosport and we’ll be looking at how best we can serve those agreements.

The other principle for me is that let’s say we move to a primary based ranking system and the PTCs stay at £50,000. We are effectively devaluing the PTCs. A number of the players at the moment earn more ranking points than they do prize money points. So one of the things we’re keen to do, and I have to say it is underpinned by the good business World Snooker now is, is to grow those events and grow that prize money pot at the same time.

We expect our PTCs in Europe to be a minimum of £100,000 in prize money each, next year. That’s effectively doubled the UK ones and increased the European ones as well. At the end of the day we want the top players to play in them. The promoters will need the top players and we’ll be hoping the top players will support them.

Presumably the PTCs will count towards the money list, so if you have any amateurs who aren’t on the tour and they have a few good runs, does that mean they could earn themselves an official ranking?

That’s actually subject to debate at the moment. Under current rules the only players that can earn ranking points are members of the WPBSA which is effectively tour players. Now that stands, but there has been some debate over that, you know should we allow an amateur to come along and effectively gain a place on tour by performing well in the PTCs. At this moment in time as I say that isn’t possible, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

Eurosport have been massive in the last decade or so and it’s obvious from our statistics at Snooker Island that we’re getting a significant number of hits from the Eastern Bloc countries, and on a daily basis I’m in contact with people from places like Poland and Romania and Bulgaria, but when it comes to the UK and the BBC their coverage during the recent UK Championship was as bad as I can ever remember it in terms of scheduling and red button coverage. Are there any plans to bring snooker to other mainstream terrestrial channels like ITV for example who have the capacity to show live all day on ITV4 with highlights on ITV1 which they’ve done with other sports?

We’re always open to discussions. The door is firmly open in terms of our sport and the television distribution. Talks are always going on and yes I wouldn’t rule that out, but we’re continually working with the BBC and we’re continually working with how we can improve that service.

I think in terms of production, they are superb and what actually comes out is superb, and one thing I can tell you is the viewing figures are still huge for snooker so I have to say I expect that our relationship with the BBC will continue to get better.

Which new areas of the globe can we expect to see top level snooker played at over the next couple of seasons?

Well amazingly really snooker is growing everywhere. Certainly that Eastern Bloc area, Poland, Russia, Latvia. Russia is growing incredibly well so that’s somewhere we’ll be looking at.

We also know India to be a very keen cue sports nation. In fact cue sport is the only sport funded by the Olympic committee outside the Olympics in India, particularly because of its popularity and players like Pankaj Advani who are household names there. It is a big sport and traditionally it is billiards not snooker, but with snooker the more we broadcast and the more broadcast distribution we do, snooker’s actually growing very fast. So that’s an area we are keen to develop.

The other one is the Middle East. I pass through the Middle East quite a lot these days on my way to China. And every time I seem to get off a plane in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Qatar, I’ll sit in the airport there and I’ll pick a newspaper up and there’s always snooker on the back page!

The local federations now are growing, and we’ve an excellent relationship with the Qatar Snooker and Billiards Association, as we do with UAE, and we’re constantly evolving in that area really and more and more things are happening so I’m very keen on the Middle East, very keen on India, and certainly very keen on Russia as well.

What about Canada?

Canada’s very slow, and we are in talks with Canada actually and we have been for quite some time, but pool’s the strongest game there. But although it’s played a lot it’s not high level in terms of being a sport. It’s big in participation, but in terms of a televised sport you’re not looking at big numbers.

But when talking about the whole Americas region, in South America you’ve got Brazil, and snooker is big in Brazil! And next year I’m pleased to say that we will also be taking snooker to Cali in Columbia. We’ll be presenting snooker along with pool and 3-cushion billiards at the World Games in July. So that’s a project we’ll be supporting.

I’m also pleased to say that three days ago it was announced that we’ve actually been reinstated to the Asian Indoor Games and again that is a cue sports event where we will be supporting snooker, pool and carom.

One of the things I’m keen to do is trying to grow these areas, because the Americas is a tough one to crack with snooker alone, if we were to enter the Americas with pool and snooker it becomes a different option. I’m keen to develop these multi-sport games because 1) it helps funding for grass root development and 2) it helps form national governing bodies in those countries and every governing body that’s formed in those countries is directly related to the sports council or the sports bureau from within the government. That opens up opportunities for us.

So Canada, we do have an association in Canada but it’s very small at the moment. They’ve had some great players over the years so I’m amazed it’s died over there. It’s gone backwards to be honest. When you think of Cliff and Alain Robidoux and some of the other players that have come over, it’s surprising really that it’s just not happened over there. But we’ll be keen to try and develop that so it’s possible that it may start with an invitation event or something like that.

In Europe one of the things that has helped us is what Matchroom has brought to the table, and it’s about broadcast distribution. When you start sticking something on TV in peak hours, people start watching it and the popularity grows again. That’s where we’ve been very successful through Eurosport and our Eurosport agreements throughout that Eastern Bloc area. So there is potential there to grow in Canada and South America.

Who knows how big we can make the sport! We’re only scraping the surface of what I believe is possible. It is incredible! Billiards sports, and I’m not just talking about snooker, you know carom and 3-cushion and pool, Russian pyramids, snooker, if you put all those sports together in a pot, you are looking at a massive sport! In terms of participation and in terms of the number of competitions going on around the world, it is massive. And for me, one of my goals is bringing those sports together and to make proper representation to the IOC because I firmly believe that we need to be taken more seriously as a sport worldwide.

Snooker in the Olympics? Now wouldn’t that be something? It certainly seems the way the game is heading that this is becoming increasingly more likely, and with Jason Ferguson at the helm the future of the sport is in very good hands. Exciting times ahead for snooker!


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