Ferguson

The Big Jason Ferguson Interview – Part Two

Continuing from part one posted on Tuesday, click below for the second part of my extended interview with WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson, as we talk about ‘burn out’, snooker in schools and the continued development of the sport globally…

  • Click here to read part one of the interview

PSB: One thing that struck me in the arena the other day, we have had John Higgins, Mark Allen, Mark Selby, Mark Williams coming in after matches and they have all spoken immediately after their matches about the need to pick and choose events going forward. Is that something that you would encourage, or see as a necessity these days?

JF: I think it is becoming a necessity for the players. I spoke with Mark Selby last night and he was clearly devastated that he had lost. There’s no question of it, he is burnt out. He has had an exceptional year where if he has not won a tournament, he has been in the latter stages, so he’s been pushed to the limits, I think both physically and mentally.

While we’re not a fitness sport, you have only got to take a look out there, the fitter, the stronger, players are actually going further and staying longer. The reason for that is it’s hard, it’s mentally exhausting, the travel commitments are enormous. I know that, it’s unbelievable the amount of travelling involved, recovery times are getting less between events.

Burned out? Mark Selby

I think that’s an issue that we are going to have to continue to look at. I think we will certainly look at our calendar and certainly some of the new players coming on the tour will give consideration as to whether they are going to play in everything or not or whether they are going to take some short breaks, or miss an Asian Tour event, or miss a European Tour event, or even miss a ranking event.

I know that there is some talk amongst the players that they may miss one of the early ranking events, so that they can take a longer summer. Now my father worked down the mines all his life, he did 12 hour shifts digging coal out, he did it year-in, year-out and I never heard him complain once.

Some people might say, oh poor things, they are doing something that they love, they are out there, in front of an audience, everybody likes them, they have become celebrities, what are they moaning about? But we have to face it, it is a gruelling schedule, and it is tough.

You have got to be fit, you have got to be ready for it, you’ve got to be mentally strong for it, it’s not just mentally strong in terms of fitness and playing the game, you have got to be mentally strong to deal with all of the different countries that you are going to, different foods you are going to. It’s hard, going.

I think that some of the players have suffered from burn out this year, but others are relishing it. I’m fortunate, I’m a very good traveller, I travel to Asia, I get off the plane, put my tie on in the toilets in the aeroplane and go to the first meeting as soon as we land and that’s how it is. I can do it, but some people don’t travel so well.

PSB: It’s a difficult one, because you have players saying for example that they will not be playing in Australia, but as a governing body you need that event to be supported. How important is that for you to find a balance between allowing players to miss tournaments, but then making sure that they don’t all miss the same one?

JF: It is difficult. The one thing that I will say is that the game is bigger than the player these days and I think what proves that is that we have seen record ticket sales this year, long before Ronnie announced his comeback. I am sure that his comeback did encourage people to buy more tickets, but the game is bigger than a single player and we can afford to lose a few players here and there in tournaments.

But if all the players miss one tournament, then it isn’t good for us as promoters. We would hope that whilst we are still within this period of growth, that the membership, the players, will support these events. It is important to us. We are in the position of negotiation with Australia now. If the players don’t support the event, the negotiation will be much harder.

We’ll be keen to see as many players play as possible, but by the same token, if players want to pick and choose, we don’t have a problem with that. There’s been some talk in the media about that we are forcing players to go, but we don’t force anybody to do anything. Yes they sign a players contract which has certain restrictions in terms of what they do and don’t do, but in terms of playing in tournaments, entering events and not entering events, players can pick and choose and enter whatever events they want to and if they don’t want to enter, they don’t have to.

But what we do say is that if you do enter, make sure that you turn up.

PSB: Do you think that in the future, there is some sort of scope for a system such as that used in tennis where the best of a set number of events count towards a player’s ranking, for example in tennis it is the best 18 results.

JF: You know I have heard this question a lot, there are quite a few players who have suggested that we could do that, but it is messy you know, from a PR and a media point of view. A clean system is there are the points, that’s what you win if you win, that’s what you get if you don’t turn up. It’s very simple. Once you start playing with figures it does become very difficult to market the ranking list properly.

The one thing that we will be able to do with this new ranking list and the fact that we have got players at 128 in the round, is that we will be able to re-seed very quickly. One day we’ll be able to start and finish and event and produce new ranking lists

PSB: Indeed, you have got six cut-offs next season haven’t you? Up two from this year…

JF: Exactly, which is good news for snooker, it’s excitement, not only for people watching it and the changes that you are seeing but it actually creates more competition amongst the players, there is more to play for every time.

If you are thinking of missing Australia and Wuxi this year and you are number 18 in the world, and you know that a few players above you are going to miss that tournament, you are going to stop and think to yourself ‘hang on I’m going to enter this, I’m going to make up some lost ground.’ That’s certainly the way that I would be thinking.

Wuxi

It would be great to get to a position where we could re-seed after an event, but if you look at how difficult our calendar is to manage now it’s not easy. What we tried to do is to create more cut-offs and actually look at the way it is fair in terms of the events that are dropping off and which events are coming on.

You study it all the time. We think that we have done the fairest possible way that we can in terms of cut-offs this year. It’s interesting, I actually think that we are going to get to a point where events will start overlapping, I certainly know how many discussions I have got going on with various countries and I am starting to think that…’where am I going to put that one? What’s going to happen if we get that deal, where will that go…?’

PSB: So do you think that we will have a situation where people will have to choose which events to enter?

JF: I do. I think that we will end up like tennis and golf eventually. I think that you will end up with two or three events going on at once possibly, if you look at how tight it is now, some players will probably be thinking ‘I will go to that one, but not the one in front of it.’

So in a nutshell, we’re busy!

PSB: On another note, this week you unveiled the Cue Zone Into Schools scheme, tell us a little about that…

JF: It’s a development that has come out of our coaching and development plan. It is clearly linked to good reasoning. It makes sense that if you want future stars, future viewers, future ticket buyers, future interest in your sport, then you have to introduce it to young people.

What we’ve found through the coaching scheme is that we have trained around 200 new coaches and a number of those have created little niches for themselves, got involved with some schools and Chris Lovell, head of the World Snooker coaching team, we have regular meetings on development strategy. The schools programme to be honest with you is something that he has designed. He is a training provider, that’s what his background is, he has grown a training system that works within schools, where we can take small tables into schools.

If you go back to the conversation that we were having earlier about Olympic sports, it’s predominantly Olympic sports that you get introduced to at school. This is because schools can apply for grants from Sport England. We have taken snooker to the steps of Sport England and we are now a registered sport. There is the ability to apply for grants to Sport England now for snooker. Whether that be schools, youth clubs or wherever that is, you can actually tap in to some of that grant aid money so that’s the start.

So the schools programme, we are launching 12 schools up and down the UK to start with. We are using Steve Davis as the ambassador for it. Steve has got to that point in his life where snooker has been good to him and he is really giving a lot back and he is enjoying it as well. I think he has really taken to it and he has got involved with the nuts and bolts of it too, he is involved on a daily basis. It is a project that he is very keen on and I can’t thank him enough for it.

We know just from these 12 schools that we are initiating ourselves, we will have 10,000 children playing snooker in schools by the end of the year. That’s 10,000 people that you are introducing to the sport.

There are amazing statistics coming out of what we are doing. One is the fact that basic arithmetic is improving in everywhere we go in these schools. We are using a programme called functional snooker, which is a game devised by numbered balls, adding and subtracting, teaching basic arithmetic to young people, so what I intend to do in the longer term is to lobby parliament and to get it in the education system everywhere.

That is the key to the success of any sport. Any sport that wants to survive long term needs to keep participation high. Now what we are seeing is a massive increase in participation, we’re seeing a massive interest coming from these schools but not only that, but I am hearing comments like at this school yesterday, there was a 13-year-old girl there who did an interview for the local radio station. She said that she thought that snooker was old, smoky halls and she had no idea that it was such fun! She said that she really loved it, that she would be watching it from now on and that she would want to play again. She can’t wait and now they are going to get the chance to play at breakfast club, at lunch time, after school club and not only that, but we can have our maths lesson in the snooker room.

So that’s what we are doing. Each school that we lead, we are leaving small tables in the schools. It is based on the old table tennis idea of tables that you can fold away and wheel to the side of the room, that’s the principle of it. Funny enough, my father when I started snooker, he actually built me a snooker table, which folded down and wheeled to the side of the room, so that’s really where I got the idea from that we could do this in schools. So I have got my hard-working father to thank for that idea.

We are also training the games teachers in the schools to be World Snooker coaches, albeit at a basic level. Yesterday there was a training course here in Sheffield, there was a whole new batch of school teachers that we were training to be snooker coaches.

Now to be a snooker coach you don’t need to be the highest level coach straight away. There are certain principles that our coaches have to abide by, there’s the child protection policies, the way that they conduct themselves. All they are here to do is to teach the basic snooker skills to, introduce them to the game.

Some of these coaches will go on to be elite coaches, they will take on extra training, they’ll develop much quicker. Some of those coaches might be games teachers at a school, they might teach ten different sports, they are not going to be an expert in every one. The fact is, we can get thousands of people playing snooker.

Here’s another one, not every child playing school wants to play football, rugby or cricket…

PSB: I certainly didn’t!

JF: And I can relate to this. Believe it or not, I was the worst sportsman in my school and I was the only person to come out of my year, who became a professional sportsman. What does that tell you? That tells you that there is something missing in the education system. So here is the letter:

Dear Education Minister,

We want every child to have a snooker cue and to learn maths in school and have the opportunity to be involved in our sport.

So that’s where we are going with this. When I was at school, you had to be 18 to go to a snooker club. There are still a lot of clubs like that now and there are a limited number of clubs with the demise in the licensing trade, the demise in snooker clubs throughout the UK.

What we have recognised is that we’ve got to take our sport to the people, rather than expect the people to come to our sport. That’s what our schools programme is doing, it is engaging young people in education, in schools that have got a reputation of having difficulties with certain children. So if it’s a problem school and they just can’t engage the children in education at all, we are finding that we are engaging kids that nobody else can engage in education. We’ve seen some incredible results and we will certainly be using those results when we talk to Westminster about our plans, so we are very excited by it.

I have to say, the new structure that we have within World Snooker and the WPBSA has allowed schools to develop in this way. Under the old system we were too busy trying to put events on and trying to service our membership. Just now, we have got a tour of events, we are servicing our membership, but we are developing the sport properly. I don’t see this as a short-term fix, I see this very much as a long-term goal.

But there is no doubt about it, our audience, our interest will get younger. It is already getting younger by the day, we also see this as a global programme, not one that we will just leave in the UK.

PSB: You have told me that snooker is arguably the fastest growing sport in the world, what do you base that on?

JF: People are coming to me now and saying that this must be the fastest growing sport in the world, I think that people are starting to believe this and I actually believe that it is.

We can’t quantify that in figures, but we have undertaken a massive piece of work in our Bristol office to quantify our participation levels worldwide, which is quite a challenge, but if we are to present proper bids for Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, World Games, Asian Games, we’re going to need to demonstrate participation.

Through the WCBS, I think we have something like 100 million participating in cue sports throughout the world and that is a figure that was quantified many years ago. I think it is actually bigger now. So that’s an interesting statistic and piece or work that is going on.

I saw that tennis this year when the Olympic legacy grants were given out, had some of its money held back due to a drop in participation. For me, snooker is the land of opportunity because we are on a massive increase in participation. It is increasing so fast, you would struggle to quantify it by the week and partly that is responsible to our excellent broadcasters. We have to thank Eurosport for their coverage throughout Europe, the BBC, obviously for their long term support. We have had some events on ITV this year which we are very excited about, but also CCTV China, again, massive coverage throughout the world. That television coverage helps enormously to get people watching snooker.

What the schools programme will do, it will engage people within the sport and not only that, but it will create a massive benefit within the community if we get this right. So everybody wins here. I think what you should do Matt is to come to one of the schools when we actually launch, you would be amazed at what is going on behind the scenes, it’s very exciting, an incredible project.

PSB: On another note, there are players such as Mark Allen, who have suggested that due to the increased expenses on the tour, there are going to be players on the tour next season who will not be able to complete the season – do you think that there is a risk of this?

JF: Of course there is. I think that there is a risk of that in any sport and I think if anybody thinks that they are going to join the tour and it is going to be an easy ride and they are going to earn a lot of money…there is the opportunity to earn a lot of money, but it’s tough out there.

There is a danger that players could come on tour and that if they are not winning, halfway through the season, it is possible that they may run out of money and not be able to continue.

The reason for that will be that you are not winning. Now, if you are not winning, we are providing the opportunity for you to win and if you are not winning, you are not good enough. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to win many matches to start earning a few thousand pounds, so the opportunities are there.

The best thing that we can do is continue to develop the levels of prize money that are on offer. Sport has to remain competitive, there is no point in us saying that everybody should be on guaranteed prize money, it has to remain competitive. But at the same time, the rewards need to be there, we need to continue to grow the prize money, it’s very simple.

PSB: Long term you have always said that you would like to see that everyone who wins a match, is rewarded, is that attainable?

JF: To be honest with you I think that we are there. If you look at the new structure, we have achieved that this year.

Interestingly enough that was one of the discussions I had with Barry earlier on in the year and I was talking to you about ‘yes we can do this system, but these are the principles.’

One of these principles laid down was that anybody who wins a game, gets paid. I think that if you look through the whole structure, I actually believe that everybody gets paid when they win a match.

PSB: You have spoken about the expansion of the game globally and the move into new territories India for example is one that has been discussed a lot of late…

JF: We are seeing potential growth that we have got throughout the world, certainly looking at target areas that we feel have massive potential, India is one of those. They have two great players on the tour now and the media coverage that is following those two players is actually quite substantial.

India’s Aditya Mehta

Working within the national governing body structure, we are looking at the possibility of a major event there and I have to say those negotiations are going very, very well at this stage. India is potentially like another China if it happens. There is huge wealth in India, there is a huge participation in cue sports in India.

Interestingly enough, snooker was invented in India. It would be amazing if we took it there, it would make a great story, but billiards is huge in participation in India, traditional English billiards. So for me, that’s a territory that we need to be looking at and a very big market to develop commercially.

On top of that, other areas of interest, we had a little bit of a snippet in Brazil last year with an invitation tournament. I am pleased to say that we’ve continued some discussions in Brazil, we are now working with a new federation in Brazil, we’re now trying to establish our grass roots in Brazil.

PSB: Igor Figueiredo is back on tour as well I notice…

JF: The Confederation of Billiard Sports in Brazil have been in talks with for quite some time in having an Americas place on our tour this year. I asked the federation to host an event to qualify for the main tour.

Igor won and he will be taking up his place on the main tour. I contacted him a couple of days ago to congratulate him and he is so excited to come back. Again, this is a big area for us. Brazil traditionally do invest in sport, they have had some great sportsmen over the years and again it is an exciting area for us. I will be dropping into Brazil on my way to the World Games which is in Colombia to continue those discussions.

The other area that we are looking at in terms of growth is the Middle East. Many years ago we had an event in Dubai, that area of the world is developing quite quickly with cue sports. We are in talks with Qatar, who are very interested in doing a major event. They are investing heavily in sport at the moment, so we will continue those discussions. We already have an academy in Qatar, so we are working to develop that further.

Back on tour – Igor Figueiredo

So new areas of interest, the Middle East, India, the Americas region, who knows? There is so much untapped opportunity for this game. I get to see it first hand, it is incredible, but you have got to develop it properly. It’s no good thinking that you can go in, put an event on, take a load of money out of the country and come back the following year. When you go back next year, it won’t be there.

You have to develop the sport, you have to work with the government, you have to work with the sports authorities and you have to develop the sport properly in order to maintain long term funding.

PSB: You mentioned Brandon Parker earlier, I was talking to him a few days ago and he spoke about the new European Tour event at Mulheim an der Ruhr, which is among the most densely populated area in Europe and sounds like an exciting event…

JF: Yeah it is exciting. Brandon has been terrific really, he’s brought quite a lot to the party in terms of the German Masters. Germany is a bit of a specialism of Brandon’s, with his Dragonstars partners in Germany, who he works very closely with.

That’s what you need in these countries, you need people on the ground, you can’t do it all from the UK, you have got to have partners. Brandon works with a great bunch of people out there, who run great events and I think that will be a really interesting one.

Again, some of the events that he has started, you have seen massive audiences, not only on television, but also in the arena. The one in Antwerp for example, 1,500 people watching a European Tour event, what potential to harness really.

The Tempodrom, Berlin

And the other one of interest at the moment is actually Russia. We have seen strong growth throughout Eastern Europe. Interestingly enough, cue sports are very popular in Russia. They play Russian pyramids there, they also play pool, but what we are also finding now through some of the Eurosport coverage and through some of the amateur events that we have been staging is that participation levels in snooker are fast on the up.

There is great potential out there to stage an event and hopefully again that is something that we can introduce through the European Tour.

PSB: China too is obviously well established and this week, seeing the magazines and talking to their journalists, I have realised how seriously they treat the sport. It is hard for people to appreciate here in the UK isn’t it? It’s massive.

JF: It is. It’s not just there either, we are seeing growth in other areas, but China in particular has really grasped snooker. Snooker suits the Chinese people very well. They are not necessarily big people generally, they are not built for rugby and some of the big physical sports, but snooker certainly suits the culture of the Chinese people who love technical sports, the skill, discipline and they work so hard the players that practice, they train hard.

Amazingly, we have opened a World Snooker Academy in Beijing recently and trained the first World Snooker coaching team in China. Again, we will be looking to introduce some of the programme that we have been doing throughout the schools in China. We’ve already got a few schools on the go already out there but again the level of participation and the fact that our audience in China is so much younger as well, you have only got to look at the sponsors that we have, premium sponsors that you would dream of.

It is very popular is snooker, it’s cool, it’s trendy, we get all the best stuff in China. We get all of the fashion magazines involved. You have seen the quality of the billiard magazines, all these things that you would never think would have an interest in snooker, have done these features. There’s more to follow. It’s important, we’re not just a sport that goes in, runs an event and then runs off for a year and the comes back. We are now building a platform where the sport can remain solid.

PSB: It clearly is big, but there is that problem with the crowds that appear to be relatively low on the televison from the events in China and it is just getting that across here isn’t it?

JF: It is. Certainly they do not market tickets like we do here in the UK for sporting events. Many sporting events in China you are free to just walk in and out as you please, it’s very relaxed in terms of people going to the venues and watching.

Also, there tends to be a lot of corporate sold, so some of the seats that you will see empty, a lot of the time the VIP room will be full and that is their prerogative. They are great sponsors and it is part and parcel. It doesn’t form part of the business plan, the same as in the UK, that’s what you have to understand. It is a very different environment that we work in. It is very, very formal and we have to respect the cultures of the people that we are dealing with and that’s what we do.

PSB: While we are running out of time, we have a few questions in on Twitter, starting with a cheeky one from @davehendon who asks what is your favourite snooker magazine?

JF: I have got two, Snooker Scene and Ibilliard. Ibilliard is great. I love reading Snooker Scene though and one of the things that I have found with that is that every time it comes out there is so much more in it because there is so much more going on and I do read it. Clive has been around for many years and is a voice of experience..

PSB: On another note, ‏@papafleming asks ‘will all the top names reaching end of career together have an adverse impact on the game?’

JF: No, because there will always be a new top player coming through, you can see this over the years. Everybody said that when Alex Higgins went, the game would die, when Stephen Hendry went the game would die, when Steve Davis started to slip a bit, then Stephen Hendry came along, he was the new boy on the block.

We’ve got some new stars here this week so it’s an ever-evolving tour, there will always be top players and new stories.

PSB: Next up, ‏@victori75314839 asks: ‘who is his favourite player and what he thinks about Bulgaria??

JF: Bulgaria I am very excited with. Bulgaria I thought last year was terrific, I have actually been out there and met with the sports minister recently and he’s actually stepped in and is going to support the event further this year. So we are looking to build that one up.

I think that area has got potential. Again, I had the opportunity to go out there for a couple of days and when you go out on the streets, you see it on the big screens, in other places being played and it was clearly very popular. So yeah, exciting area for us that.

My favourite player? I wouldn’t normally comment on that, but my hero was Steve Davis as a youngster and really I can’t thank him enough for the ambassadorial role that he does now. I think that he does such a terrific job, every time I ask him to come out and do something, he does it in a professional style.

PSB: This has already been asked, but ‏@snookerorg (a brilliant site incidentally), asks: ‘I see a great number of Russian visitors to my site. Any plans of a ranking event there?’

JF: We have got plans for Russia. We have actually got some Russian speaking people who we are working with now and we are actually in talks with Russia, so hopefully we might get a European Tour, or a bigger event over there. We are excited about the possibility of going to Russia.

PSB: Next up, @butters_147 asks: ‘Will World Snooker ever set foot in Canada again? #ThanksMatt’

JF: Snooker is a little bit weak still in Canada. In terms of participation it is very low in Canada. Predominantly 9-ball pool is the leading cue sport there.

But what you may also find very interesting, is that there is a huge English billiards tour league in Winnipeg and for the first time ever we are taking an English Billiards ranking event to Canada this year.

So while we do that, we will obviously be investigating the opportunity of growing snooker there.

PSB: Fair enough! And finally, we have ‏@thewizardofglos who asks ‘when will the snookerbacker classic winner win a main tour spot #WizardTours’ as well as @snookerbacker1 who echoes that with: ‘What Wizard said’

JF: He’s hilarious that boy, absolutely hilarious!

PSB: And I think that just about covers everything! Thank you very much for your time!