Flicking through the sports channels during the holidays, I stumbled across a competition known as the Mosconi Cup. Fleetingly interested, the information button told me that it was a trans-Atlantic pool tournament analogous to the Ryder Cup. As a keen fan of both the institution of the Ryder Cup and playing pool, I spent most of the day watching my new discovery, becoming increasingly enthralled by it. Exciting as the competition was however, it got me thinking: why is pool such a popular sport to play but has its biggest event consigned to the graveyard slot on Sky Sports 4? Snooker, the game most similar to pool, has successfully transported its appeal to primetime BBC 1, so much so that the World Championships are one of the only protected terrestrial events left. So what are the barriers that continue to prevent pool from doing the same?
It’s an extremely tough question, to which I can think of two main answers. The first is that pool is simply a lot easier than other sports. Compared to snooker, the pockets on a pool table are larger, the table is substantially smaller and the cushions are a lot more forgiving. Indeed, we’ve all experienced the sensation of the table “sucking” the ball into the pocket. Although pool still requires a reasonable amount of skill, the nature of the sport means that the gap between world class players and people who play the game down the pub is relatively small. Pool is just someone using a stick to hit a ball into a pocket. This is true, but football is just a person kicking a ball around and football attracts unbelievable worldwide appeal. The difference perhaps is that there are skills that only a professional player could execute on a regular basis. We’ve all had the enjoyable sensation of “7-balling” another pool player, but not many of us have scored a Wayne Rooney-esque bicycle kick. If I, a pooling amateur at best, can do all the things that it is possible to do on a pool table, then why should I bother to watch someone else do it? The sad reality is that pool is rather predictable and pedestrian to the spectator.
The point remains however, that snooker regularly attracts an audience of millions, and the fundamentals of the sports are broadly the same. In snooker however, the aforementioned larger table and smaller pockets do create a huge skill divide between the two sports. The emphasis on meticulous positional play rather than risky bank shots combined with the added complication of navigating differently coloured balls at different times means that professional snooker players are far above and beyond the ordinary Joe.
On a good day, I could clear four or five balls on a pool table with some regularity, but the chance of me clocking up a break of more than fifteen on a snooker table is slim. The majority of the nation would probably label watching snooker and pool as equally boring, but for ardent snooker fans the differing skill element must be the difference in terms of keeping snooker in a primetime TV slot and consigning pool to the scrapheap.
Perhaps a slightly less important reason for the lack of TV audience that pool receives is that its growth didn’t mirror, and wasn’t partly down to, the rise of television itself. The popularity of snooker grew exponentially as the cult of television exploded into the family living room, and subsequently reaped the long-lasting benefits of this. Indeed, my gran could even recall the irony of attempting to watch snooker in black and white. In contrast, although pool far outdated television, innovations such as the Mosconi Cup, which attempt to switch the emphasis onto the crowd atmosphere seen in televised darts, only came into effect during the 1990s. Therefore, pool simply isn’t synonymous with television in the same way that snooker and football are. This in turn means less money for advertising and sponsorships and less chance to grow the game.
Walk into any pool hall and the pool tables will be packed, with the solitary snooker table sitting unused in the corner, but the fact remains that pool simply isn’t associated with television. Without wishing to demean the skill level of professional pool players, who would undoubtedly thrash me in a game, the reality remains that Ronnie O’Sullivan is a household name whereas his pool equivalent David Archer was unknown to me until this winter. The gap between the novice and the pro is nowhere near as vast compared to other sports, and the majority of the population associate pool with a bit of pub fun rather than serious televised competition.
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