Snooker’s Second Act

Posted: July 26, 2013 in Other Sports
Tags: , , , , , ,
Pheonix From the Baize?

Pheonix From the Baize?

What a difference a year makes. Only twelve short months ago Irish snooker enthusiasts were bemoaning what seemed an incurable apathy towards their sport, as they struggled to convince the counties youth to swap their games consoles for a cue and the green baize.

Senior figures outlined the struggle to unearth the games next generation, with Jim Leacy, then Chairman of the Irish Snooker and Billiards Association observing, “these days we aren’t just competing with other sports, we’re competing with iPads, Box Sets and all the rest.” With less and less snooker halls nationwide to sate the tiny appetite of an indifferent public, many were questioning the long term viability of the game.

Not that the concern was confined to Ireland. In a 2010 article a UK newspaper predicted snookers illustrious eighty year professional status would come to an end before the decade was out – the games last rites, if you like. In truth the piece was only giving voice to the thoughts of many. Plunging viewing figures, coupled with the banning of tobacco advertising in 2005 (previously worth millions to the sport) had led to reduced prize money and, unsurprisingly, unhappier competitors playing to smaller crowds.

Pessimism reigned supreme.

Fast forward twelve months, however, and thanks to various initiatives such as same day multi-regional events and an across-the-board reduced flat rate admission fee, coupled with increased funding from the Irish Sports Council, snooker is among the fastest growing sports in Ireland. Leacy and his board have seen the fruits of their labour both at underage and veterans level.

In recessionary times, the chance to keep kids occupied for hours on end for €5 has proved extremely popular with cash-strapped parents. So meteoric has the rise in the games popularity been at underage level that an increase of over 80% has been recorded in the combined under age groups over the past year, according to RIBSA (Republic of Ireland Billiards and Snooker Association). And as impressive as the underage figures are, they actually lag some way behind the over 40’s age group, where the upsurge in participation contributed to the recent victory of the men’s national team at the European Championships in Serbia.

PJ Nolan, a full-time national coach at RIBSA, is greatly encouraged by the recent surge in interest among Irish kids in the sport and believes the creation of several modern facilities across the country to also have been a contributing factor in the game’s renaissance here. “The dingy, smoke-filled snooker halls have been replaced by clubs with state of the art facilities like the Ivy Rooms Snooker Club in Carlow and the Ken Doherty Academy in Dublin. These are venues any parent would love their child to be playing in” he says.

Not that Ireland is alone in this snooker renaissance. According to the BBC, who provide the coverage of the World Championships to the overseas markets, in just five years the global television audience has jumped from 84 million in 2007 to an estimated 350 million for last year’s tournament with China accounting for a sizeable chunk of that increase.

Not that The People’s Republic is the only new kid on the snooker block with countries such as India, Iran, Canada and Norway all contributing to the world rankings’ cosmopolitan feel. There are few better placed to assess the sports global growth than Nolan, who is also an international coach and development officer, working with kids all over the world, witnessing the games rise at close quarters. Nolan’s work has seen him coach in countries such as Qatar, UAE, Israel and India, as well as several countries across mainland Europe. “The countries all across Asia and in (mainland) Europe have caught up really fast (with the UK and Ireland). China, India, Thailand and Iran are all producing great talents.” he says.

From a player’s perspective, Fergal O’Brien, a former British Open winner and professional of twenty years, welcomes this growth in overseas popularity, leading as it does to more events and, ultimately, more prize money. “A few years ago there were only five ranking events, which made it very difficult to make a decent living from the game. Now, thanks to China, there are eleven (ranking) events and I can see that figure rising each year, as the game becomes more and more popular, not just in Asia, but mainland Europe too.”

Whilst it may be too early for talk of another Irish World Champion, Nolan believes the foundations are certainly in place. “With the increase in the number of kids taking up the sport, coupled with the excellent facilities, we’re certainly giving ourselves every chance.”

 

 Article first published in The Irish Examiner, April, ‘13

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