David Hendon reflects on the success of the Hong Kong Masters

Following the massive success of the 2022 Hong Kong Masters, David Hendon – for Eurosport – reflects on the importance of “Elite events” in the context of sports “visibility” and promotion to the masses.

Here is his piece for Eurosport:

OPINION: WHY HONG KONG MASTERS WAS VERY SPECIAL SHOWCASE FOR RONNIE O’SULLIVAN AND SNOOKER’S BRIGHTEST STARS

It is important for snooker to have a thriving ranking circuit, but to grow the sport, it should make greater use of its prime assets: the recognisable players who showcase it through their stellar performances. That is exactly what the sport did with a spectacular few days at the Hong Kong Masters with Ronnie O’Sullivan coming out on top in a wonderful celebration in front of huge crowds.

t would be nice to think that Ray Reardon, on his 90th birthday, switched on Eurosport on Saturday morning to see Marco Fu’s 147 break in the deciding frame of his victory over John Higgins in the semi-finals of the Hong Kong Masters.

Reardon could not turn professional until he was 35 because snooker was yet to attract the attention of television and there was no money in it. That all changed in 1969 when the BBC launched Pot Black to showcase its new colour service. Reardon was its first winner and quickly became a household name. He won six world titles and helped launch snooker into the stratosphere.

Now, it has taken another step forward. This weekend saw a record crowd of roughly 9,000 at the Hong Kong Coliseum for the final, where Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Fu 6-4. The event was a stunning success, staged at a huge, modern arena before adoring fans. O’Sullivan described it as the best tournament he has ever played in.

It was exactly the sort of event snooker needs to appear relevant and credible to general sports fans who want to be part of something which feels special.

This is perhaps easier to achieve in a relatively new market than in an established one. The recent British Open in Milton Keynes struggled to attract significant crowds. The atmosphere for much of the week was muted. The venue has possibly been overused in recent times whereas the Hong Kong event was the first in Asia for three years.

Britain is saturated with 14 tournaments this season, so audiences can be more choosy about which ones they attend. But crowds tend to also be choosy about who they want to watch, and overwhelmingly this is the leading players.

That’s why elite events such as the Hong Kong Masters are important for the image and growth of the game. World Snooker Tour’s remit is to promote professional snooker. It must also provide playing opportunities for 131 tour players. If snooker is to truly be a profession, then the players clearly need the chance to earn a living.

However, some in the snooker world love to ask what the sport can do for them, rather than what they can do for it. The announcement of the Hong Kong event and new mixed doubles tournament was greeted with some epic moaning from lower-ranked players resentful that the leading lights are being rewarded further.

In fact, the entire selling point of these new events was their elitism. Sponsors, broadcasters and fans were attracted to the best players in the world, plus local invitees, or in the case of the doubles the novelty of the top men and women teaming up.

t is important for snooker to have a thriving ranking circuit, but to grow the sport, it should make greater use of its prime assets: the recognisable players who showcase it through their stellar performances.

Barry Hearn was, until last year, chairman of WST and is now president. In a former life, his Matchroom organisation was responsible for many ground-breaking trips to foreign climes, utilising the appeal of Steve Davis and the other players he managed.

In this way, he was well ahead of the people actually running snooker, who were at the mercy of rank-and-file players who could vote them off the board of the governing body each year. To a large extent, the tail wagged the dog.

At the helm of WST, Hearn provided significant playing opportunities for all players, even though his position as chairman was not subject to anything as inconvenient as democracy.

The PDC darts, which he also oversees, has a World Series of six events featuring limited fields and played around the world in places such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Snooker could benefit from something similar. Imagine an eight-player event in New York City, Tokyo, or Sydney. What a statement that would be that we truly are a global sport; what an opportunity for the best players we have to bring it to new audiences.

It’s not an easy task. Such events often take years to come to fruition, with huge amounts of groundwork required and the thorny issue of who is going to pay for it always the key factor. But all sports have elite competitions only for the best. Football has the Champions League. Golf has the Tiger Woods promoted World Challenge in the Bahamas. Tennis has the ATP and WTA finals. They are big, bold and exciting occasions which appeal to a wide constituency, not just the diehard fans.

Many British events, on the other hand, are played in leisure centres where the snooker is just another thing happening in the building. Players, including some of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen, have to mingle with kids on their way to swimming lessons, middle-aged men playing squash and pensioners having a game of bowls.

At Wolverhampton, last season gym users at the Aldersley leisure centre were asked not to drop weights on the floor because the Players Championship was also taking place in the building. This hardly screams ‘elite sport.’

The ordinariness of the snooker circuit is actually one of its appeals. The players have remained grounded and approachable. But this doesn’t mean we can’t try to be more ambitious in the way we present ourselves.

Snooker also needs to up its game when it comes to providing an all-round experience. At the recent British Open final in Milton Keynes, there were three and a half hours between sessions with no additional entertainment put on for spectators apart from the ‘Cue Zone,’ an area backstage with a couple of tables which carried all the excitement of standing in the bucketing rain on a Sunday morning in the queue for the Megabus.

It’s fine to be a sport of the people as long as you don’t take the people for granted. In times of economic hardship, it is even more important to provide value for money.

WST has given several legends of the game – Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White and Ken Doherty in recent times – invitational wild cards. Why not make it contingent that to receive one they have to undertake promotional work at tournaments? Hendry and Doherty, in fact, did play an exhibition frame at Milton Keynes to fill TV time and it was extremely well received. On Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong, an exhibition featuring pros and local amateurs was similarly popular.

In many ways, the presentation of snooker has moved forward in recent seasons. The WST event managers have worked hard to distinguish each tournament – not easy when they are often sponsored by the same company. A dedicated and creative young team does good work on the digital media side, which is also financially profitable to WST, and therefore, the sport.

The highest-profile tournaments do feel like marquee events, as proved at the Masters last season. The challenge now is to create more special experiences for fans and players alike.

Ultimately there is only one constituency which really matters – the audience. They will decide what they want to watch. In Hong Kong, they turned out in extraordinary numbers to see the best of the best.

It proved that snooker can compete with what other sports have to offer. The challenge now is to make this the norm, not the exception.

This is a very interesting and important article by Dave and I agree with what he says. Putting his ideas in practice might be extremely difficult though unless other things change as well.

The first issue I see is about the very nature of the current snooker ranking system. You can’t expect the top players to compete in six or seven prestigious invitational events, traveling around the world, and, at the same time competing in nearly all the “ranking events” in order to stay at the top. It will not work. Ronnie certainly doesn’t like to be over-played and it doesn’t work for him anyway.

One possible answer to that issue would to base the ranking on the “n (to be determined) best results” for each player over the last two years instead of taking all results into account. It would raise other issues though, notably with the “Series” WST seems to love so much in recent years.

The best solution would be to ditch the ranking system entirely and to replace it by a rating system, for instance an “ELO” type of system. In such a system, every player has a rating, reflecting their ability, and every match counts provided it’s played under fair conditions. The points “gained” or “lost” depend on the previous ratings of both opponents. Basically, in such system, the winner takes some rating points out of the loser. How much depends on the rating of both players and the “expected result” of the match as computed by the supporting mathematical method. The principle is that the highest rated player is expected to win, therefore their win will not improve their rating that much, whilst a loss will be “penalised” more heavily. On the other hand, he lowest rated player, should they win will be rewarded more substantially, whilst a loss will not impact their rating that much. If you want to know more and are not afraid of some maths here is the wikipedia article about ELO rating systems

Such a rating system can be applied at every level of the game, provided all federations agree on the way to apply it, and playing conditions are fair and sufficiently homogenous.

A player, not playing for some agreed duration, for instance two years, loses their rating altogether.

What would be the drawbacks or problems if such system was applied at all levels and in all countries for snooker rating?

Well to start with WST will never agree to such universal system because they would lose their tight control of the professional game. Basically any event, provided it offers the right guarantees of fairness, integrity and proper playing conditions, could “participate” to the rating system. It would completely “blur” the distinction between amateurs and pros. It would break WST monopoly.

It requires understanding of the system, agreement and collaboration between all federations involved at all levels of the sport. Agreement between all federations has proved to be a major point of contention in history of billiards games.

Such system might prove hard to understand for most fans, and that would almost certainly negatively impact their involvement when it comes to betting and gambling. This in turn is likely to negatively impact snooker’s sponsoring, at least in the short term.

A completely “decentralised” system might pose problems when it comes to broadcasting rights and contactual matters in general because there would not be ONE body/company “owning” the game. That, of course, would almost certainly impact the fans as well.

There are huge benefits for the players though. It would “free” them from the current rigid structure. It would allow for prestige events without penalising either those invited or those not invited, at least when it comes to the sports “order of merit”. It would allow the lower rated players to managed their sporting career whilst at the same time having another job. I would allow the “amateurs” the to gain experience against the “pros” without the need to rely on a WST invitation. The actual notions of “pro” or an “amateur” would be blurred: basically you would be a pro if the sport is your main source of income. It would allow the eldest players to stay active in the game, possibly at the highest level, whilst playing less.

You might be surprised by ELO systems are actually used in big physical sports, most notably in basketball (at team level).

Thoughts?

Afterthought… the success of the Hong Kong Masters will also revive the debate about the adequacy of the Crucible as the home of the biggest snooker event, the World Championship. But that’s another story.