Snooker must get back in the frame

Amid fierce political infighting, snooker’s rulers have seen losses mount. Now, without a commercial arm, the sport faces further upheaval. By Daniel Thomas

The snooker season begins next week, but it seems that the sport’s governing body has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to sponsorship. Deep-rooted problems involving administration and the game’s image are proving off-putting to potential sponsors.

Decades of internal disputes appear to be far from over for the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), which axed its commercial arm last month (MW August 14). The move came as a shock, as there had been promising signs of a much-needed recovery in sponsorship income. Construction company Travis Perkins signed up for the UK Championships in a three-year deal said to be worth more than &£1m (MW July 17). Meanwhile, LG Electronics extended its involvement as the sponsor for a tour of seven major competitions (MW last week).

Both deals were brokered by the now-defunct commercial arm of the WPBSA, World Snooker Enterprises (WSE). This body was appointed less than a year ago to steer the loss-making sport to profitability, but had its contract terminated for its “inability to perform under the terms”, according to the WPBSA. The accusation has led to legal threats from WSE.

The dismissal of WSE also led to the resignation of WPBSA chairman Tony Lewis, who says he was not consulted on the decision. Many in the industry question why the WPBSA fired its commercial arm at a time when the sport still lacks sponsors for the Masters tournament and the British, Welsh and Scottish championships.

Three years ago, then-chief executive Jim McKenzie promised a new era for snooker and predicted the sport would generate &£100m in five years. Two years of losses and McKenzie’s acrimonious departure make this promise look particularly hollow.

The sponsorship problems are surprising, given that snooker is still one of the most popular sports in the UK, with an impressive 220 hours of TV coverage on the BBC every year and another 200 hours through deals with BSkyB, ITV and Eurosport. The 2001 World Championship final on BBC2 attracted a larger peak audience than the FA Cup final, and last year drew 7.1 million viewers, giving it an audience share of over 40 per cent.

Graham Fry, executive producer of the BBC’s snooker coverage, says: “The BBC events have huge visibility, much of it during peak time. Viewing figures have continued to grow – snooker may no longer draw in 18 million people as it did in the Eighties, but that is a sign of change in broadcasting rather than in the popularity of the sport.”

The size of snooker’s audience is a considerable draw for any potential sponsor, according to Matthew Patten, chief executive of entertainment agency SP Active, but the game still has an image problem because of its association with tobacco and its lack of charismatic players.

Patten says: “The raw data is good, but the sport has lost its sheen. The image is unattractive. What brand wants to be linked with a sport played in smoky, dark rooms?”

Karen Earl, of sports agency Karen Earl Sponsorship, which organised Benson & Hedges’ sponsorship of the Masters competition, agrees that the sport has huge potential but is in need of an image overhaul. Earl says: “B&H took a lot from the sport, but since then sponsors have not managed to capitalise on it so much. Snooker needs a media campaign to heighten its profile.”

Others see the sport’s problems as more deep-rooted. Senior BBC snooker commentator Clive Everton says the business world is wary of dealing with the WPBSA. Everton says the sport has been mismanaged at the highest level for decades, blaming an archaic board structure that largely comprises ex-players with little business sense.

The WSE dispute is only the most recent example of a long-term organisational malaise, he says, with an attempt by a group of players to break away two years ago still affecting relationships within the sport. Everton concludes: “There has been two decades of incompetence and mismanagement, and things are worse now than ever.”

Stewart Weir, marketing director of 110 Sport, a sports agency run by long-time WPBSA adversary Ian Doyle, claims the body has been negligent. Weir says: “Snooker remains a fantastic product but unfortunately there is no one with any idea how to run the sport. It has been that way for several years.”

WPBSA commercial director Neal Stevens defends the sport on the grounds that it is still going through a difficult transition away from a reliance on tobacco money. Regal and B&H have ceased contributing to the sport’s coffers, while Embassy can only continue until 2005 – a dispensation allowed because it sponsored the World Championships. Stevens says: “Legislation on tobacco advertising has had an impact on our business and the sport as a whole. However, this has given us the opportunity to create a new beginning for snooker. We anticipate further announcements on sponsorship deals in the coming months.”

The last decade has seen snooker forgotten by sponsors, which have been attracted to more active sports such as football, rugby and cricket. But with the sport far from forgotten by its millions of fans, it is now up to the WPBSA to end the trouble at the top and concentrate on marketing the game.

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