For the next 11 days all the action in the world of snooker will be taking place within Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. The annual Embassy World Championship is the end-of-season highlight watched by millions of television viewers on BBC.
Defending champion Mark Williams will be up against the likes of former world champion Stephen Hendry, world number two John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan – who has replaced characters such as Jimmy White as the sport’s token rough diamond and is a big favourite with the fans.
But, those behind the scenes at the Crucible, will have a more important date burned into their minds: June 13, when the action shifts away from the dark rooms and late-night matches to the High Court in London where an arguably more important event for the future of the game will be played out by two sets of lawyers. It is a court case that could have repercussions for other sports.
The High Court case is being brought by 110 Sport, the Internet company previously known as The Sportsmasters Network (TSN), which alleges that the sport’s governing body the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association (WPBSA) is operating a monopoly and restricting the trade of players by not sanctioning its proposed competitions. 110 Sport represents a number of top snooker players including Hendry. The WPBSA denies the allegations and says it will make counter claims against 110 Sport in court.
At the root of the case is the question of who should control the sport. The legal battle is the latest stage in a war of words that has been raging for 12 months since TSN, as was, received an estimated £11m from venture capitalist Warburg Pincus to develop a snooker website. The plans gathered momentum and TSN approached the WPBSA, offering to take over the management and commercial exploitation of the sport leaving the WPBSA merely to enforce the sport’s rules.
But at the end of last year, shortly after the WPBSA rejected TSN’s offer, the rebels announced a full-blown, ten-date rival tour to start in 2002. The tour had the backing of some of the sport’s biggest names including Williams and Hendry [who are both believed to have a stake in TSN]. The events were scheduled to clash with those backed by the WPBSA with a World Championship starting in Birmingham on the same day as the Crucible event was to begin next year.
The rebels argued that the rival events would generate more money for players, attract non-tobacco sponsors, create greater international exposure for the game and reverse the fortunes of a sport which once attracted TV audiences of more than 15 million people, but which expects only half that number to tune in for this year’s Embassy final.
They accused the WPBSA of failing to properly exploit the opportunities the sport had in its Eighties’ heyday. Ultimately the threatened breakaway caused rifts between players as they joined one camp or the other. And TSN finally postponed its plans on March 8, four weeks after the BBC came out and said it would honour its existing six-year contract with the WPBSA to broadcast events, which has another five years to run.
WPBSA chief executive Jim McKenzie, who believes the offer was not difficult to reject, says: “TSN said it would take over the management and exploitation of the sport but would not pay for the rights the WPBSA holds and any profits it distributes to its shareholders including a small number of players and Warburg Pincus.” McKenzie who says he would not “dispute the claim that the game has been undersold” was hired last October as part of a plan to exploit more fully the sport’s commercial prospects.
The WPBSA has subsequently hired an event management company, advisers on the exploitation of media rights and a PR firm. It has also established a joint marketing committee with the BBC to relaunch the sport from October. BBC market research shows that snooker remains the second-most popular sport which it broadcasts after football.
It was the BBC’s decision to put its weight behind the WPBSA, plus the signing of LG Electronics to a £1m three-year sponsorship agreement, which proved crucial in fighting off the rebels. The WPBSA was able to win back some of the players who were wavering between the two camps.
The fight for control of the sport has left some bad feeling and the atmosphere at the Crucible – between some of the players, promoters and the WPBSA – is said to be tense. The case was due to start on May 8, less than 24 hours after the new champion is crowned, but has been delayed to allow both sides more time to prepare their respective cases.
If nothing else, the threat of the breakaway has perhaps acted as a catalyst to force snooker to address the commercial problems that it faces and to do something about them. In that respect the court case will have meaning beyond the green baize. But it is difficult not to find the situation a little ridiculous. On June 13 we will actually witness 110 Sport, which represents some players, taking the WPBSA, an association owned by all the players, to court over who should control snooker.
That cannot be in the interests of the players or the sport. As usual the only really satisfied players will be the lawyers.
Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times