Barry Hearn on snooker players living on the breadline
Hearn, Joe Swail, and 2018 UK Championship semi-finalist Tom Ford discuss snooker's ranking system, realising your dreams, and the absence of prize money for first-round losers.
Tom Ford’s impressive run to the semi-finals of this year’s Betway UK Championship could not have come at a better time for both himself and World Snooker chief Barry Hearn.
Ford said after his first-round victory that, following his poor start to the season, he was feeling the squeeze financially ahead of Christmas, but his excellent performances in York proves Hearn right on one aspect of his much-discussed system: the opportunity exists for everybody if they are good enough to take it.
That is not only applicable to the biggest events. There will be 20 ranking events in the 2018/19 season, all of which offer sizeable prize money. In the 2009/10 campaign, there were just six.
Joe Swail, whose world ranking was as high as 22 at the end of that campaign, but is now outside the top 64, has experienced both worlds, and acknowledges the increase in competition is a positive.
“It’s a lot better than what it was, a hell of a lot better, says Swail, who has been a professional for 27 years and was speaking in the press room at the York Barbican, where he reached the second round.
“We’re grateful for Barry Hearn for putting in the sponsors and all that – fantastic.”
But the point of contention for Swail and several other players at the bottom of the rankings is the financial situation that they are faced with.
Though Hearn scrapped tournament entry fees at the start of last season, it is striking that no player ranked from world No. 71 downwards on the current money list has earned more than £50,000 in prize money in the last two years.
That works out at £25,000 a year – around the average salary for the UK – but leaves little leftover when taking out the cost of flights, accommodation and living costs when competing in tournaments around the world.
And given that top-16 players are entered at the same stage as everyone else in all ranking events, players ranked towards the bottom struggle to progress far very often and have no guaranteed income.
Hearn is aware of this, of course, but he remains adamant that no player will earn money from simply turning up, that this is a sport that rewards winning and nothing else.
“You mustn’t sponsor mediocrity,” says Hearn. “Sport is brutal, to get to the top you must have ability.
“The growth of prize money in snooker recently has predominantly been at the top end and that will generally continue.
“My next round of prize money increases will more be geared towards the lower levels, but with the caveat that first-round losers will still get nothing. That follows the golf model that if you don’t make the cut, you don’t get paid.
“We don’t pay a wage, we create opportunity to change your life. There has to be a threshold to find out if you’re good enough, and if you’re not good enough you should get another job.”
John Parrott was vocal in his disagreement in the BBC TV studio this week, saying that you can’t expect players to be regularly pitted against the top seeds without supplying them with a basic income.
“If you’re going to compare to the likes of football, I mean, come on,” he says.
“We’re in an individual sport, we’ve got to go out there and play in front of a lot of fans. You have to deal with social media, TV everything, and you’re guaranteed nothing.
“We need to bring the money down to the lower levels. Give the guys a minimum wage, you can’t have the young guys in debt right away.”
With victories essential in order to earn a living, the circuit becomes almost survival of the fittest.
Swail explains what it’s like to be scrapping around for the odd win and much-cherished prize money.
“Even though I hate losing, I’m kind of glad to be out of there,” he says. “It’s very cut-throat, and I’m sure there are lots of players feeling the same way.
“There’s more to life than this game, but bills have to be paid.”
Those pressures can result in bad habits developing, too.
“I’ve been losing so many matches recently that I’ve got used to it,” says Swail.
“When I won it was like a shock to the system.”
But Hearn can, justifiably, point to the evident health of the sport as justification for his carrot-and-stick approach.
"It's a balancing act," says Hearn.
"We want to make sure professional players can survive, while they climb the mountain.
"But we're getting a lot of shocks in snooker. In Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago, nine of the top 16 didn't make it through to the second round.
"That's quite a statement for where snooker is, the standard is good."
Hearn's message is simple: meeting that standard is what is required if players want to make a living from the game they love.
Do that and life can change very quickly, as Ford - whose £35,000 prize money is his biggest ever pay day - has just found out.
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