Today marks the tenth anniversary of the election of Jason Ferguson as Chairman of the WPBSA, a position that he has held ever since.
In the first edition of our new periodic feature ‘The Chairman’s Blog’ Jason reflects upon some of the changes snooker has witnessed over the past decade, the growth of the sport and why despite the current global situation this is only the beginning of our journey…
To be asked to come back and steer the WPBSA again was a great honour for me. Despite being completely away from snooker for a few years, my love for this sport has never faltered.
I remember fondly the first time my father took me into a billiard hall at a Butlin’s holiday camp in Wales, I was just mesmerised by the game being played, a feeling that remains with me to this day when I walk into our venues. From desperately trying and pot that very first ball, playing in leagues and amateur events over the years, to competing on the professional tour, I cannot recall a day where I did not want to be around this sport. Working in its administration is equally as interesting and challenging. There is so much to do, we must work hard, prepare properly, be focused and very disciplined. In fact, my days now are not too dissimilar to those when I was player, the hours are just longer.
Despite our current challenges, I am extremely proud of where our sport is today, however I still believe we are a long way from what can be achieved, so we must keep the focus, keep planning and keep going forward.
Even during this current health pandemic, it is easy to see on the world’s social media platforms just how big our snooker community has become. Personally, I have seen many old photos for the first time, connected with many friends old and new, heard snooker players singing for charity, witnessed players competing online from their own homes and seen more community spirit thoughts, strangers sharing thoughts and new ideas, all from far corners of the world. All with one global family connection ‘Snooker and Billiards’. It does make you feel very humble and proud to be part of it.
Ten years ago, we entered our new commercial arrangements with Matchroom Sport, undoubtedly the largest fundamental change the WPBSA had seen. This type of commercial structure for snooker had been considered at various crossroads over the years, but at times it had proved to be too big a step to take without the guarantee of success. However, with Barry Hearn and his team’s passion for promoting events, Matchroom’s history in snooker, coupled with the will of the WPBSA playing membership, the timing was right.
Snooker is a very British export, it required further globalisation, something I was and remain very passionate about. I had worked in Asia before with snooker and I knew further growth could be achieved there. We have certainly covered a few miles in the last ten years, we travel like crazy, sleep on trains, aeroplanes and even in cars at times going between cities in order to make the next meeting or press conference. It’s not for everyone, but we must push the boundaries, find new places, new markets and new opportunities.
In ten years, our commercial operations now known as the World Snooker Tour (WST) have grown year on year, we have more events that ever before, more prize money on offer and more TV airtime than ever before. This is testament to the great teams we have at the WPBSA and WST, but I must say a huge thanks and point out the great respect I have for our players who have not faltered in their dedication and provide astonishing live drama week in week out.
Despite all this growth, we still love tradition and heritage, something I am keen to preserve in the WPBSA.
I am pleased the World Championship has continued to grow remaining in Sheffield. That is the crown jewel of the tour and it is fantastic to see the winner now receiving a top prize of £500,000, a total that has doubled over the past decade as prize money continues to grow. The Crucible in Sheffield has become the spiritual home of snooker, it is the dream of every young aspiring player to appear there and we should not take that dream away. This year may appear very different with uncertainty of crowds etc – but ask any ambitious player with dreams and they would want to play there.
“Infrastructure that can underpin the future of the sport”
As WST has delivered unprecedented growth in the sport, the responsibility on the WPBSA has grown enormously. All sports today are under so much scrutiny, they are live and newsworthy, so to command the respect as a major global sport, the WPBSA has had to grow significantly.
Over the past 10 years is that we have been able to build an infrastructure within the WPBSA that can deliver referee training, coach training, academy development and global amateur and junior events. It is an infrastructure that can underpin the future growth of the sport. We have been prudent in our management building resources, something which will carry us safely through these choppy waters right now.
One such positive change has been the formation of the World Snooker Federation (WSF) and the staging of tournaments such as the WSF Open and WSF Junior Open which took place early this year in Malta.
Our vision is to not only continue to expand our sport into new territories and to new markets, but to create sustainable growth. To do that we need solid governance, the right people in the right place and we need to form partnerships around the world. The WSF has been established to align the interests of amateur snooker, grassroots development and the professional tour because players don’t just arrive there, there must be an accessible development path for elite performers, also a way of preparing the best for life on the WST.
At the height of the UK snooker ‘boom’ in the 1980s, the amateur game was incredibly strong with hundreds of players competing in many events. Many players broke through in the early 1990s like Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams, John Higgins and more, but amateur infrastructure contracted badly and as such, we have seen the average age of a top player remain high on the WST.
10 years on, there is an abundance of future talent coming through from all over the world. Europe is becoming particularly strong through the work of our partners the European Billiards & Snooker Association which is now finding activity in well over 50 countries. China, Thailand we know are producing great player. I hear many people assuming Chinese players will take over the tour.
It is true there are many talented young players, but there are interesting twists coming in our future story with amazing juniors like Iulian Boiko from Ukraine, new talent in Ireland like Aaron Hill, Liverpool’s Sean Maddocks and a great Austrian Florian Nuessle and many more. We will take a look at this junior talent on our media feeds this week, but I can assure you that there are many new and exciting players out there ready to bring new drama to our screens.
It is crucial that we are able to get the balance right from elitism at the top of the sport, to having a system which can capture that person who first walks in a snooker club for the first time where we provide that person an equal opportunity, wherever they are from, to become into a star of the future.
We have continuing to go out into new territories such as Africa more recently. Snooker’s inclusion in the African Games by the African Billiards and Snooker Confederation last August was a major step in the right direction. It is a new area where snooker is growing, particularly Morocco where many new clubs have opened. By working through an official African sports authority, we can work and plan for the future, in a region where there are over 50 countries.
A Sport for All
There is a lot more to the WPBSA that meets the eye, as a world governing body, governance of the sport goes without saying, but underneath this players body is a group organisation demonstrating just how diverse snooker and billiards are.
The World Women’s Snooker Tour (WWS) runs a calendar designed to bring more women into the mainstream professional sport. It is a matter of time with women playing numbers up that we will see talent breaking through to the WST.
World Disability Billiards and Snooker (WDBS) is delivering great results, a carefully constructed tour in many categories has seen amazing talents appear. So much so that WDBS players appeared at the Crucible Theatre last August, earning their rightful moment at the pinnacle of our sport.
We preserve our history and heritage with our founder sport ‘English Billiards’ through our group organisation World Billiards (WBL). Incredibly, Billiards has delivered growth, with the 2019 World Billiards Championship being played at the prestigious RAVC in Melbourne, Australia.
The outlook for international travel appears uncertain for the short term and major events may look a little different for a while, but there is no intention to rest. Behind the scenes, we are all working hard, the WPBSA has good management and staff. I am excited about getting back out on the road at the appropriate time.
During the past 10 years, there have been some great moments. From seeing players win that first world title like Stuart Bingham, the emergence of the incredible Judd Trump, the achievements of Ronnie O’Sullivan, the gradual return to top form of Mark Williams was nothing short of emotional, and seeing an old practice partner, Anthony Hamilton, who always gave 100% win the German Masters.
Snooker to me is magical, from the highs and lows our players go through, to the arriving in a new place with nothing but a clean sheet of paper to get started. I remain as excited as ever to get on with the job in hand and I hope to serve the WPBSA for many more years to come.