- World Snooker Tour rebrand aims to mark distinction as commercial arm of WPBSA
- New identity comes as tour seeks to expand further into international markets
- Digital distribution is helping WST reach audiences and gather data in new territories such as India and Latin America
At the start of the new decade, the erstwhile World Snooker unveiled a new corporate identity and name, rebranding as World Snooker Tour.
The step is, in part, an effort to more clearly delineate World Snooker Tour as a commercial entity, distinct from the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the game’s governing body, of which it is a subsidiary. At a time that several federations – World Rugby, World Sailing and World Athletics among them – have moved toward a similar naming structure to define themselves as the global authorities for their respective sports, World Snooker Tour’s move is about more accurately representing what the body does, to both fans and the commercial market, says Jason Ferguson, non-executive director of WST and chairman of the WPBSA.
“It is a global snooker tour now,” says Ferguson. “Partly this is about better communicating who we are and what we do. So our public-facing, commercial arm, that’s World Snooker Tour and it’s exactly what it says: A snooker tour of the world.”
International expansion at heart of strategy
That global outlook is at the crux of the change, and of WST’s ambitions for the coming decade. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Sport acquiring a controlling stake in World Snooker and Hearn himself becoming its chairman – a decade defined by international expansion to drive growth.
In the 2009-10 season, there were six world ranking events on the World Snooker tour – four in the UK and two in China. In 2019-20, there will be 18, with Austria, Germany, Gibraltar and Latvia also hosting ranking tournaments, plus a further ten major events throughout the calendar. In that time, the total prize money offered by the organisation has risen from £3.6m (€4.2m/$4.7m) to £14.6m.
Ferguson refers to the past ten years under the Matchroom Sport ownership as “the first stage of our commercial restructure”, and promises that the next ten will see growth continue at a steady rate. Hearn has already expressed his ambition for the tour to be able to offer prize money totalling £30m by 2030, and made plain his intention to achieve that through expansion of the tour into new territories.
The rebrand was undertaken with global audiences in mind, says Ferguson. “It’s a clean look and it’s very clear what that sport is when you look at the logo. I don’t think you can just put a few letters out there, like WPBSA, and expect people to understand it all around the world. By becoming World Snooker Tour, it’s that much more obvious what we’re doing and who we are.”
The logo features the silhouette of a snooker player taking a shot in the outline of the S and the T, a visual identity Ferguson believes will be recognisable across the world, even in territories where snooker has little foothold. “Snooker has traditionally been a very British sport, but cue sports of some form or another are played all over the world,” says Ferguson. “We think we can tap into that and we wanted to make the brand more universally, instantly recognisable.”
He points to Latin America – one of WST’s “long-term target markets” – as an example of this. “In Brazil, they play a slightly different game, but it’s played on a snooker table as we would recognise it. You can take a Brazilian billiards player, put him on the World Snooker Tour, and he can compete to the highest level because the skill is the same. It’s another big market with a big population, so it’s really about identifying where those opportunities lie globally, and that is definitely one of them.”
China remains central, India a target
At a time when it can seem that the eyes of the entire sport industry are on China and are making efforts to tap into that market, snooker finds itself in the enviable position of having garnered significant popularity in the country over the recent past, a popularity fuelled by star Ding Junhui. In 2005, Ding won the UK Championship – one of the World Snooker Tour’s three ‘Triple Crown’ events – at the age of just 18, becoming the first player from outside the British Isles to take the title.
According to some estimates, there now are as many as 60 million Chinese people regularly playing snooker, with Beijing alone now home to over 1,500 snooker clubs. When Ding reached the 2016 World Championship final, it was reportedly watched on state broadcaster CCTV by over 45 million people.
This season’s snooker calendar includes seven major events in China – four ranking tournaments and the 2019 World Cup among them – including the 20th anniversary edition of the China Open. What has WST learned about international expansion from two decades of hosting major events in the world’s most populous country?
“We’ve learned that when we go into these markets we need to give something back to these markets,” says Ferguson. “It can’t be a case of snooker going to a city, putting on an event, going away and coming back the next year. There’s a lot that has to go on in those 12 months to help build the sport, whether that be junior events, amateur events, training officials – you have to have an infrastructure that maintains the interest in the sport.”
Establishing a major snooker academy in Beijing has helped to create a talent pathway from China’s snooker halls and on to the tour, a path that the likes of Liang Wenbo and Yan Bingtao have taken, becoming regulars in ranking tournaments. Both of them were beaten by Ding on his way to a third UK Championship title in December. “We need those local stars,” says Ferguson. “We need national heroes, we need faces we can use to market ourselves in new territories. I don’t think you can put a value on how important Ding has been for us in China.”
WST is currently working to establish an academy in India, the next major target territory for the body. Late last year, a deal was inked with India Business Group to help develop the sport in the country. Snooker in its modern form was “invented in India by British Army officers”, Ferguson points out, “and it remains popular as a recreational game there. There’s a huge market for people who enjoy snooker, enjoy other cue sports, there are so many billiard tables in India. It’s a game that’s played by the masses, and that gives us confidence that there’s a market for the professional game as well.”
That confidence is fuelled by what WST has seen on its social media platforms, where viewership of snooker tournaments on Facebook Live has vastly outstripped expectations. While it is not avoiding deals with traditional broadcasters – both Star Sports and Sony Six have bought rights for snooker events in the country, with the latter airing the Indian Open since its inception in 2013 – Ferguson says WST is incredibly focused on digital distribution in developing territories, especially India where, he says, “there are far more people accessing our content on phones, tablets and computers than traditional TV. That means we can gather data on who is watching it, where they’re watching it, how people are accessing it. It’s really helping to give us a view of India”.
Digital broadcasts will be key
Digital distribution has become central to the overarching strategy of World Snooker Tour, to the extent that its main web presence is now based at WST.tv, which over time will evolve to become “a fully-fledged content platform”, says Ferguson, who argues that snooker is well-suited to the social media age due to its ‘clippable’ nature, with individual shots and moments easily understandable in short-form, outside of the context of the wider game. With 64,000 hours of snooker broadcast in 2019, there is no shortage of content for the new hub.
“We’ve looked at lots of different ways of putting content out there, both short- and long-form, ways we can serve both long-term fans and newcomers,” Ferguson says. He notes that some of snooker’s viral content has in the past involved off-table controversies, like Ali Carter’s complaint over a foul call at the Masters. “The next day I was watching that travel all around the world, people talking about it in various languages on various social media platforms. That’s something that’s pleasing to see and is terrific exposure for us.”
Viral clips that get people watching snooker are important because “one thing we do know about snooker broadcasts, in both the UK and China, is that our audiences tend to grow throughout the night. People don’t usually watch for a few minutes and then turn off. We do find that once people are watching, they’re usually hooked. So if we can funnel people from our social platforms, from WST.tv, to watching full tournament matches, we are confident we can build audiences wherever we decide to take the sport”.
A central pillar of the WST’s international strategy is to avoid a situation where its academies around the world are just developing players to play in major tournaments in England, something that has tended to be the case in the past. “We’re trying to create a sport for all, where we’re actually helping to establish talent and then create the opportunities for them to play where they are,” Ferguson explains. “It’s crucial that we not only create the pathways for players to come through and play on the tour, but also that we take the tour to them and to the fans around the world and start to really build out a global portfolio of events.”
Just weeks before the rebrand was unveiled, WST announced it had secured a major new agreement with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority to host an annual ranking event in the country for the next ten years. With a total prize purse of £2.5m, the 2020 edition will immediately become the most lucrative professional snooker tournament of all time, demonstrating not only the GSA’s determination to host major sporting events of all stripes, but also WST’s desire to break new markets. The Middle East, like India, is a territory where cue sports are popular as a recreation, but without a tradition of the game being played professionally.
“We’ve got so many opportunities to develop the sport, the only limiting factor is how much time we have in a year,” Ferguson says. “But we don’t want to just flood the market with dozens of events in territories that aren’t ready for us. We’re aiming for quality over quantity, and that’s in everything that we’re doing. Quality broadcast partners, quality commercial partners and, especially, quality events.”