Leadership: Taking Snooker to the World and the Olympics

World Snooker commercial director Miles Pearce talks to Owen Evans about taking snooker to new frontiers with the inaugural Indian Open, and explains why it is the perfect platform for the sport to eventually become part of the Olympic Family.

More than A few eyebrows were raised back in June 2010 when Barry Hearn, chairman of sports event company Matchroom Sport and governing body World Snooker, said he wanted snooker tournaments to take place “every week of the year”.

Hearn made the claim as part of a five-year plan to revolutionise the sport, shortly after he took a controlling interest in World Snooker. Three years into that plan, he is about to embark on his toughest test yet: breaking into the lucrative, but risky, Indian sports market.

The first  Indian Open will take place in Delhi in October 2013, a stone’s throw from parliament HQ, from October 14 to 18. It will be a rankings tournament featuring 64 of the world’s top players competing for a prize pot of £300,000, with the winner getting £50,000. World Snooker’s move in India isn’t without its risks, but for Hearn, there is a story to tell. India is snooker’s birthplace, born in the barracks of British army officers stationed around the country during the back end of the 19th century. Considering the history, why has it taken the sport so long to come back home?

“Basically, you look back at the last 20 years where we have been dipping our toes into international territories, and you will have seen that in the last six years we have been really pushing into new markets,” Miles Pearce, commercial director for World Snooker, told SportBusiness International.

“We’ve learnt a lot from the successes we’ve had in places like China, where we’ve got nine events happening this year. What we’ve discovered are a few basic guidelines to succeeding in new markets.

“First of all, you need to have interest in the sport, which you have in India as this is the country that created snooker. Then you need to have a good local promoter as well as high levels of participation and TV spectators. So why has it taken so long? Well, we’ve been negotiating this deal for last two-and-a-half years, and it is has really been about finding the perfect balance.”

The Indian Open is an important step in snooker’s progression to emulate the year-round global tours of golf and tennis, financed by lucrative broadcast deals. And it is in the media space that digital sports agency PERFORM and pan-regional broadcaster Eurosport will play a major part in next’s month event. Pearce said World Snooker has recruited specialist agency Leisure Sport Management to promote the event within India, and will be looking for local sponsorship and broadcasting deals. World Snooker itself will negotiate the international broadcast deals, broadcasting an international stream, while discussions are currently taking place with Eurosport and broadcast partners in China, such as the Shanghai Media Group.

Indian Flavour

Often the best chance of sports and events succeeding in new markets is having a local hero to set up a marketing campaign around. And for World Snooker, the timing couldn’t be better. Maharashtra-born Aditya Mehta won gold at the World Games in Cali in July, and Pearce reveals that he and compatriot Pankaj Advani
(pictured below) will be a focal point of any promotional activation to raise the profile of the Indian Open on the ground.

“I couldn’t want for two better ambassadors for the game, eloquent and ultra professional, they are a promoter’s dream,” says Pearce. “It’s also a bit of a coup for us as Mehta just won gold in the World Games. Even if they don’t qualify, we’ll bring them over.”

In terms of event structure, the plan is to make the Indian Open more palatable to new audiences by keeping matches to best-of-seven frames all the way to the final. “Obviously some people will be annoyed and will say that the World Championships are so good because they are played over a longer period of time, but we have to be realistic and recognise that it is a big task to get someone new to a sport to commit to two days and four sessions,” says Pearce.

There will be other methods employed to penetrate the market, and World Snooker may follow suit of many other sports properties in India by playing on the popularity of Bollywood stars and fashion to add some glamour. “One of the reasons why we are talking to the Indian ministry of tourism is because the head [Minister Chiranjeevi] is a Bollywood star – if we can tap into that glamour it will help massively,” Pearce says.

“There are other ways to promote it though. For instance, with our Chinese events we would introduce our players with Chinese music and what we are very interested in right now is getting our players into the schools to grow support for snooker from a really young age. We’ve learnt a lot from the successes we’ve had in places
like China, where we’ve got nine events happening this year. Why has it taken so long to go to India? Well, we’ve been negotiating this deal for last two-and-a-half years.”

Olympic Ambitions

While India is the pressing concern right now, World Snooker’s ambitions are set a little higher over the next year or so. In April this year, World Snooker announced it would be working on a joint project with the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) and the World Confederation of Billiard Sports (WCBS – a governing body recognised by the International Olympic Committee), to improve the international profile of cue ball sports.

As a result, at the recent World Games, all snooker, billiards and pool entrants appeared through a single federation. This simplified approach mirrors baseball and softball’s campaign to get into the 2020 Olympic schedule through their newly-formed World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).

With this in mind, Pearce is targeting a spot on the 2028 Olympic Games schedule to finally announce snooker’s arrival on the world’s stage. “It’s going to take us between 15-20 years to get into the Olympics, but we are going to get there,” says Pearce. “The great thing about the amalgamation of snooker, pool and carom billiards [through the WCBS] is you tick off everything the Olympic authority is looking for. With snooker you get high TV audiences with a 450 million reach per year for our tournaments. Then you have pool and billiards that have millions who actually play the sport, especially at amateur level. So the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gets its high broadcast penetration as well as great grassroots support.”

While next month’s event in Delhi will certainly catch the eye of IOC members, World Snooker will still need to grow into new markets to convince the Olympic hierarchy that it is not a UK-focused sport anymore. In 2011, a test event in Brazil was not followed up with a ranking tournament, and while there have been noises about committing to Canada and United States, nothing has been confirmed.

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