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THE BARRY HEARN GAMBLE
Barry Hearn is promising 11 televised tournaments plus 12 Pro Tour events each worth £10,000 to the winner and an increase in prize money of at least £1m next season.
The new WPBSA chairman wants control of the game’s commercial rights in exchange, although these will revert back to the players if he fails to hit his targets.
In a bullish, at times confrontational letter to the players, Hearn has set out his master plan to revive snooker’s fortunes.
At the centrepiece of this is the Pro Tour which will be open to all 96 players on the main tour.
It will include some established events, including the Paul Hunter Classic in Germany, and new ones and have its own order of merit. TV coverage and internet streaming of some events is a possibility.
The top 24 at the end of the season will go into a televised Players Championship worth £60,000 to the winner.
The players, with justification, have complained of not having enough tournaments to play in. The finances are not there to stage legions more ranking events. If they were, the previous WPBSA administration would have done it.
But a Pro Tour along the lines of the successful PDC darts model would provide significantly increased playing opportunities and the chance to earn more money.
These new events may also, in time, be built up into bigger ranking tournaments, just as many of Hearn’s overseas tournaments for Matchroom in places like China, Thailand and Dubai in the 1980s were.
However, one of the major differences between the Hearn chairmanship and those of the past is that he believes the association should reward achievement and not mediocrity. He has told the players as much.
As Hearn sees it, the players deserve only one thing: an opportunity. What they make of this is up to them but if they fail to make the grade they should do something else.
This will be hard to hear for some players, although in reality most of them will be no worse off than before. The pro circuit will still consist of 96 players. The top 64 will still be safe and those relegated will have an immediate chance to re-qualify through a new Cue School held after the 2011 Betfred.com World Championship.
New tournaments include a ranking event in Germany, a gloriously tacky one-frame shootout on Sky Sports which will have purists crying into their back issues of Snooker Scene, a World Seniors Championship and a World Open, featuring the 96 main tour players and amateurs, which will replace the Grand Prix.
This is because the BBC has stated they will drop the Grand Prix in any new contract renewal. Hearn has therefore immediately instituted the World Open in the hope the BBC will be sufficiently impressed with it to take it in 2011, which would be the first year of their new contract.
Hearn is not the sort to do things by committee. He likes to be in control and, as such, is proposing to purchase the game’s commercial rights for the nominal fee of £1. He will then issue share capital in this new company worth £500,000 and control 51% himself.
Players will be able to purchase shares with priority given to those who have won most based on a points system taking into account tournament wins, meaning Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins would have first chance to become shareholders.
Prize money would rise from £3.5m to a minimum of £4.5m next season and by more in the years that follow. If it does not, the rights would be ceded back to the WPBSA.
The new commercial body would pay an annual licence fee to finance the WPBSA’s rules and regulatory functions, still controlled by the players. Hearn describes this as a ‘win-win situation.’
The Hearn plan includes support for the Snooker Players Association and a new ranking system that will change during the season rather than at the end of it.
Not everyone will agree with all of it. Cost cutting has seen the end of CueZone – which was popular with many fans, although at some tournaments it was little more than a table in a foyer – and courtesy cars for the players.
Some players lower down the rankings will fear for their own futures but, in reality, they aren’t any better off now. Snooker Scene’s own player columnist Jordan Brown spent in the region of £8,000 in expenses in his debut season and earned less than £1,000. Had he turned pro under the new Hearn plan he would have had the chance to play more, to earn more and to improve, possibly even keep his tour place if the results started to come his way.
At its core, the Hearn plan is a major attempt to increase snooker’s profile, the players’ opportunities and end the stagnation in the qualifying system and ranking list. Even Hearn’s critics would be hard pushed to deny his enthusiasm and commitment to making it work.
So will it work?
Hearn is a great ideas man but some of the fine detail needs to be ironed out. Players should attempt to ascertain how all this will operate in practice and have the perfect chance to because, unusually for a WPBSA chairman, Hearn has given every player his mobile number and email address and invited them to contact him with any questions or concerns they have.
But he will resign the WPBSA chairmanship if they reject his proposals in May, which would most likely sink the entire plan and deal a possibly fatal blow to snooker’s credibility with the broadcasters and sponsors he has been negotiating with.
We’ve been here before. The Hearn plan shares many similarities with the Altium bid, which failed to attract enough player support in 2002.
They were promising significant investment into the sport in exchange for its commercial rights. The players clung to the rights themselves, after which prize money fell dramatically and the number of tournaments on the circuit were reduced.
Players should read Hearn’s plans and consider them carefully rather than asking their managers – or those who call themselves managers – what it says and what it means. If they have any queries, they should address them directly to Hearn instead of relying on rumour.
Black propaganda was what did for Altium in the main, with talk of hidden agendas and ‘taking over the game,’ as if the game belongs to anyone in the first place.
On May 5, the players will get their chance to decide their own futures – again.
They should ask themselves three simple questions:
1) Do we really want to play more?
If they do, as they have always said, then the Hearn plan is a no-brainer.
2) Why should we care who runs the game’s commercial rights?
Surely players should concentrate on playing and earning money from their sport. As long as the money is going up, why does it matter who is in charge?
3) What is the alternative?
Most of them aren’t happy with the way the game has been the last few years. Supporting Hearn may be a gamble but turning down this chance to reinvigorate the sport is a bigger one.
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