The standard of snooker has never been better than it is now.
Of the 11 players who have won the most Triple Crown events, seven are still in the top 16, with current world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan clear of the field on 20.
Just one of the top 10 ranking title winners – Steve Davis – is not currently on the professional tour.
Snooker is televised around the world on a weekly basis these days, which is perfect for fans, but brings with it a certain pressure for those entrusted with selling the game to the world.
The sport has never been so marketable.
“We are always looking for six or seven major names, our flagbearers,” says World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn. “They’re the ones that create media for us, both social and traditional.
“Judd Trump is an obvious example. We’ve got Mark Selby back to his winning ways, Neil Robertson playing out of his skin. And we’re also seeing players from Thailand and China stepping up to the plate.”
It can be tough to go out there and have a laugh and a joke. You switch off for one minute and you’re two or three frames down.
An accusation made of snooker from those who don’t follow it is that, bar the enigmatic Ronnie O’Sullivan, the character and fun has gone out of the game, compared to the 1980s and ‘90s when Alex Higgins, Jimmy White and others were among the most popular figures in sport.
But, while the modern age demands professionalism and a need to be more careful with words and actions, that is something that those working closely with the players reject.
“People harp back to the 1980s,” says World Snooker Head of Media Ivan Hirschowitz. “Lots of those players grew up on the exhibition circuit, so maybe they did like to entertain the crowd a bit more.
“But then you look back at Jimmy White and he wasn’t entertaining the crowd with his personality during matches, he was entertaining them with the shots he played.”
Three-time world champion Mark Selby is known as one of the funniest professionals off the table – hence his nickname, ‘The Jester From Leicester’ – but will never be beaten for focus and determination on it.
“It can be tough, with the standard of the game these days, to go out there and have a laugh and a joke,” says Selby. “You switch off for one minute and you’re two or three frames down.
“But there are a lot of personalities on the tour.”
Hirschowitz agrees. “It’s just not true to say that we don’t have those characters,” he says. “They are really interesting guys and it’s up to us to showcase it.”
The perfect opportunity to test how engaged supporters were with the sport came, bizarrely, when snooker itself was off the agenda.
The postponement of all sport in March 2020 left a hole on World Snooker’s social media channels that needed filling.
“This year has given us a lot more opportunity to concentrate on social media and digital applications,” says Hearn. “Things that we maybe haven’t valued as much as we should have done.
“We are living in a changed world and we can create bigger personalities within our game by embracing the coupling of social media and television.
“We have been able to come up with figures on social media that we have never remotely hit before.”
Hirschowitz explains how they used the enforced break to deliver those impressive numbers.
“It was a bit of a surprise, obviously, not being able to put our biggest events on,” he says. “But we were very conscious of the fact that there would be a captive audience there – particularly when the World Championship should have been on.
“We did a series called Crucible Gold – videos of classic moments from the Crucible on each day – and we hosted a virtual World Championship on our game Snooker 19.
“The mixture of new stuff and archive stuff meant that the number of views we had on our Facebook page in April and May in 2020, when the World Championships was postponed, was higher than we had in the corresponding months of 2019, when it was played – over 14 million compared to 13.2 million.”
The challenge now is to convert that interest in the game into increased interest in the players themselves.
“We’ve got at least 10 players who are among the greatest of all time,” Hirschowitz says. “This is very much a golden era. But we’re trying to show that they’ve got lives off the table, too.
“They’re normal human beings with kids and other hobbies. We’ve got people like Shaun Murphy, who’s a really interesting talker, and then Trump, who has this charisma he’s cultivated for himself.
“Doing non-snooker-related stuff with them to show that off can really help.
“We filmed half a round of golf with Murphy and we’ve been to Neil Robertson’s house twice – he was showing us his War Hammer models and then we showed him playing football with his son in the garden.”
Accessibility and visibility are the key and areas in which snooker is excelling.
Players appear live on television within a couple of minutes of their matches finishing to dissect their performances, while other interviews and media requests are always welcomed.
“We have a number of top players – Murphy, Robertson, Selby and a number of others – who are all very helpful,” Hirschowitz says. “Whenever I ask any of them, they will always do it without any hesitation.
“A lot of sportspeople wouldn’t give us access like Robertson, for example, when he let us into his house.
“I’ve worked briefly in other sports and I don’t think they are as accessible. In football, particularly, it’s very difficult to get interviews with big players.”
The players know that it is in their interests to increase their profiles, too.
Several current and former players work for the BBC, ITV and Eurosport as pundits on live snooker throughout the season, and those with the biggest, boldest personalities tend to be the best at it.
“I’ve done Eurosport a couple of times,” says Selby. “I really enjoyed it and I’d like to get into it a bit more. I want to be involved in the game as much as possible, even when I retire.
“I like to think that I’m a decent ambassador for the sport, too. It’s given me a lot and I want to push it in the right direction.”
Snooker doesn’t want to constantly be comparing the modern game to the boom in the 1980s.
If all goes to plan, they will soon be boasting about the golden era of the 2020s.
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