World Snooker (WS), the controlling body for professional billiards and snooker, has plans to pot gold by generating &£100m over the next five years.
It is not going to be easy. The sport’s popularity peaked in the Eighties when characters such as Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White predominated. In 1985 it reached fever pitch when 18 million viewers stayed up beyond midnight to watch Dennis Taylor clinch the Embassy World Championship.
Since then the game has been rocked by internal wrangles and mismanagement. Just this month, an ugly court battle saw Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams and their agent, The Sportmasters Network (TSN, now 110 Sport), square up to WS over commercial rights. Of the eight claims made in the high court, seven were ruled in favour of the governing body and WS chief executive Jim McKenzie views this as a mandate to proceed with ambitious plans to revitalise the game.
The costed business plan is due to be launched next month, so McKenzie is reluctant to discuss the details, but the aim is to make 17 per cent year-on-year revenue increases over the next five years. He envisages that at least 80 per cent of this increase will come from sponsorship and the selling of broadcast rights.
Central to the plan is the introduction of five new ranking events in Asia – where the sport’s popularity is on the up – and the formation of an Asian subsidiary organisation.
“It will develop a whole new sweep of rights and commercial opportunities,” says McKenzie.
Closer to home there are more pressing issues. On the broadcasting front WS’s most lucrative contract – reputed to be worth &£22.5m – is with the BBC, which runs until 2006. Its other major deals are with BSkyB, ESPN Star and Shanghai Cable Network. The body is also renegotiating a contract with ITV.
Of nine main events, which have prize money totalling almost &£6m, only four have a title sponsor. One – the LG Cup, currently being played – is sponsored by LG Electronics, the international electrical and domestic goods producers, while Imperial Tobacco stumps up the cash for the others.
Under government regulations, from 2003 tobacco advertising will be outlawed. But, along with Formula One, WS has been given special exemption to use Embassy to fund its prestigious world championships until 2006, on condition it reduces the tobacco company’s funding by 20 per cent every year.
If McKenzie is worried by the prospect of losing the brands that have bank-rolled the game for so long it’s not showing. He says the enforced split is not necessarily a negative thing, as some blue-chip companies do not want to be involved in sports associated with tobacco.
But industry experts think tough times are ahead for the organisation.
Tom Halsey, Total Sponsorship’s new head of sport and events for the UK, says: “Snooker’s still not a global sport. If you’re drawing parallels with Formula One, because it’s a truly global sport with international drivers and events, F1 is going to find it relatively easy to replace tobacco sponsorship.”
But Simon Rines, author of Driving Sport Through Business, says the target is achievable. “Signing LG is very good for snooker. I would have thought it would have had some difficulty getting that sort of company on board,” he says. Rines believes that alcoholic drinks or financial services sectors could be potential replacements for the tobacco sponsors, but says this cannot be taken for granted.
Unsurprisingly, 110 Sport communications director Stewart Weir pours scorn on the ambitions of WS, and claims that drinks giant Coca-Cola had been keen to sponsor a tour run by his company.
“I’m rather sceptical because World Snooker has succeeded in attracting only one new sponsor in the past year. Jim McKenzie obviously has his plans, ideas and intentions; however, I think that first and foremost he should be realistic,” he adds.
Research published last year highlights the problems facing the sport. Sport Marketing Surveys data shows that 77 per cent of those who watch snooker on TV are over 35 years old – worrying in terms of the game’s attractiveness to sponsors.
Focus group studies conducted by Conway Smith Rose on behalf of World Snooker found that at best snooker was thought of as highly skilled and mesmeric and at worst bland and unentertaining. Youth, vulnerability, cockiness and eccentricity were seen as attractive qualities while Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White were highlighted as the sport’s main celebrities.
The research concluded that the key challenge facing WS is to make the game “sexy”, find a modern image and encourage emotional investment in current players.
The results have already been taken on board. With the blessing of WS, the BBC hired trendy sports branding company XTV Design to revamp the title sequence for its coverage of the sport. The result is a contemporary look with strong use of the players’ faces. Celebrity shoots have also been arranged for players to get their profiles in the men’s magazines and other PR initiatives are planned to bring snooker’s stars to the attention of a wider audience. The WS says it is also close to naming a sports sponsorship agency to broker deals in this area.
Exciting but tough times lie ahead for WS, but the governing body will be trying every trick it knows to ensure it hits its ambitious financial target and raises the profile of the game in the bargain so as not to loosen its grip on the sport to the likes of 110 Sport.