However, The Rocket was merely telling it like it is when he identified the game’s seemingly inexorable and sad slide towards anonymity.
Sponsors were spending their corporate sterling elsewhere long before the recession began to bite. Prizemoney is gone to pot. It’s no wonder some players are allegedly drawn towards match-fixing.
The future, if there is one, looks to be in the Orient, where the World Championship is said to be headed. From the Crucible to China, Shanghai is a long way from Sheffield, and the BBC, for one, is unlikely to go the distance, meaning the sport will soon be seen only on satellite.
Gone are the days when millions (many of them housewives) would spend lazy afternoons and long nights gazing at the green baize. Nowadays they’re more likely to be watching ‘cage fighting’.
No longer prepared to turn up at tournaments for the chance of winning £30,000, minus taxes and expenses – “I’d be better off at home with my kids” – O’Sullivan says: “I feel like I’m involved in a sport that’s had it’s good days – it’s shit… The game is dying – and that’s the opinion of a lot of other players.”
Having smashed his cue in frustration on Friday, the Londoner finds playing totally “uninspiring”, which makes one wonder how he has the patience to practice.
He added: “It’s pathetic the state of the game at the moment… I’m not short of a few quid. [His tournament earnings alone amount to nearly £6m.] It would be a shame for snooker to suffer, but it’s run by people in suits that don’t know what they’re doing. Whoever’s making these decisions are killing the sport. They’re stopping the entertainment and sometimes you feel like you’re trapped. Snooker seems to be going backwards, it’s boring.”
The fact that it’s played by people in suits too is a cheap shot. But you can see, and understand, why he’s fed up. It’s too easy to say the characters are all gone, though that’s part of the reason. Society has changed and so have people’s social habits. Still, after a definite dip, snooker halls are enjoying a resurgence, including a new one at Riverstown in Tramore, and the relocation of Sullys to O’Connell Street, as well as a strong membership among other established clubs in the city and county. Generally the amateur game is in great nick, with the standard getting better all the time. Breaks of 50, which used generate a round of applause on TV a generation ago, are taken for granted in local club matches.
However, the professional scene has been stagnant since the early nineties and in decline for the past decade. Calling for the players to “take a stand together”, O’Sullivan suggests it will take someone like boxing/darts impresario Barry Hearne, or even the brains behind such smash hits as ‘The X-Factor’, to take snooker by the scruff and revive its appeal.
“It needs someone like… Simon Cowell with entrepreneurial skills, someone who’s more up to date in the modern world, that’s a bit more dynamic,” Ronnie reckons.
For sure snooker has always been as much entertainment as sport, per se. These things tend to be cyclical. Whoever would have thought, for instance, that a retro show such as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and an ‘Opportunity Knocks’ for the Noughties like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ would become two of the most popular programmes on mainstream television.
Snooker’s time in the spotlight may well come again, but Ronnie probably won’t be around to profit as a player. Maybe he’ll be among those running it. Better than running away.