Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Snooker: how not to break with the familiar

I used to watch lots of snooker as a kid but then more or less stopped following it. Like many others, however, I’ve found myself glued to the World Championships over the last week or two. Not just because of the number of exciting matches, like Ronnie Sullivan's 13-12 defeat to Barry Hawkins. Not just because it’s one of the very few sports my mum watches with me. But because I like the familiarity - both the coverage and the sport itself are virtually the same as I remember. The same presenter (Hazel Irvine), same venue (the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield), same format (32 players, four rounds), same referees and - for the most part - the same players. If players aren’t playing any more, or if they got knocked out early, they’re in the commentary box (Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, Steve Davis, Peter Ebdon, John Parrott) alongside the ever so familiar voices of John Virgo, Willie Thorne, Dennis Taylor and Terry Griffiths. It almost feels like the only thing that’s changed somewhat is the theme tune, and even that’s based on the same song (the excellent Drag Racer by the Doug Wood Band).

This year's World Snooker Championship is the 40th to
be held at the Crucible in Sheffield. Photo: Philippa Willits

Another sport I follow closely is basketball. But speed and fitness are so important that players rarely play past their mid-thirties, let alone into their fifties like in snooker. I first got into NBA basketball in February 2007, staying up late over much of the next 18 months to catch games. Then I went six years without following it properly. By the time I got back into it, players who’d been young stars when I last watched them were suddenly “veterans”. Many had already retired. Several teams had moved or “rebranded”. At the end of the 2007-08 season, after which I lost interest, the Seattle Sonics moved 2000 miles and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. That almost makes Wimbledon’s infamous 60-mile move to Milton Keynes seem ok by comparison (well, not quite, nothing does). The New Jersey Nets are now the Brooklyn Nets. The New Orleans Hornets are now the New Orleans Pelicans. The Charlotte Bobcats are now the Charlotte Hornets.

I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a small “c” conservative when it comes to sport, which wouldn’t reflect my support for the introduction of technology, whether goalline technology in football, Hawk-Eye in tennis and cricket, or the television match official in rugby. Obviously I also welcome how better equipment has improved the quality of many sports. And how injuries are taken more seriously than in the past, especially head injuries in football and rugby.

But one thing I do like in sport is familiarity. I despair when I hear older generations of football fans lament how the game has changed for the worst. Some things have improved since the 80s (mostly safety at stadiums and attitudes shown towards racism and homophobia, not always punished sufficiently yet, but more than before). But what’s the world coming to when fans are expected to pay £55 a game to watch wildly overpaid players who jump at the chance to move for even more cash? When £100k a week for Liverpool Football Club, one of the biggest on the planet, isn’t enough for a 20-year-old, who refuses to play until granted a transfer [to Manchester City]? When owners try to change historic team names or team coloursWhen a Premier League game between Everton and Manchester City kicks off at 11.15am to please TV audiences in the Far East? When a player staying at the same club all career is seen as a thing of the past? When an FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Manchester United takes place at Wembley rather than a neutral ground closer to the North West? When some "big" clubs think they should automatically qualify for the Champions League or start their own "breakaway" league?

Cardiff City fans protest against changing the
team's colours to red. Photo: Jon Candy

Globalisation and money will almost inevitably continue to change sport. And snooker's probably no exception. But the only significant recent changes so far seem to have been positive. It’s expanded to China, swelling the sport’s global viewing audience. There are now more players from outside the UK and tournaments outside the British Isles than before, which few see as a bad thing - we call it the "World Championships" after all. Tobacco advertising is outlawed - rightly, in my opinion - so it's found other ways to replace lost income. One or two other minor reforms have been mooted.

As a spectacle though, it’s reassuringly similar to what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and it's reassuring to think that future generations will watch the same spectacle, not altered beyond recognition because a small number of people have seen a new way to make lots of money. And the changes made and talked about pale into insignificance compared to the radical overhaul which has harmed football since my dad first started to go and watch Charlton in the 80s. Driven not by what supporters want but what broadcasters and commercial interests, football's changed almost irreparably in many ways. Governing bodies, some of which have apparently been too busy lining their own pockets, seem too weak and feeble to apply meaningful regulation, to enforce robust “fit and proper” tests for owners, or to cap ticket prices (the £30 away ticket limit is too little, too late). What a shame!

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