Snooker - Women's game heads to Asia hoping to turn the tables
By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - When Dennis Taylor potted the final black to defeat Steve Davis in the 1985 World Snooker Championship final, 18.5 million British television viewers were glued to their sets at 12:23 a.m. to witness the sport's most defining shot.
The portly Northern Irishman had upset the odds after two days of gripping drama to overcome three-time champion Davis 18-17 and help snooker reach the zenith of its popularity in a match that is still talked about some 32 years later.
In a similarly engrossing denouement to the Women's World Championships in Singapore on Monday morning, Hong Kong's Ng On Yee calmly potted the final pink to edge out India's Vidya Pillai on her way to a 6-5 triumph and a second global title.
The tense finish is where the similarities end, however, as unlike the packed house at the Crucible all those years ago, a scattering of hardy souls at the venue and 3,365 viewers watched Ng seal victory on a live YouTube stream at 1:30 a.m.
The 26-year-old spent 12 gruelling hours at the table to first defeat 11-times world champion Reanne Evans in a final-frame decider before grinding down Pillai in a war of attrition, fuelled by a box of energy bars and an unrelenting will to win.
For a sport played on tables, the top women have been feeding on scraps for decades and the fact Ng's success barely made the sports pages is evidence of how much work the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) needs to do to raise awareness.
Jason Ferguson is chairman of snooker's governing body and the former professional, undeterred by the challenge ahead, is unwavering in his mission to turn the women's tour into a profitable venture through exposure and participation.
"It's early days as it's only our first year looking after the women's tour but we have already seen an increase in prize money and activity," Ferguson told Reuters at the Lagoon Billiard Room, venue for the finals.
"The (women's game) was run originally (by) a voluntary organisation, predominantly in England for many, many years. There's only so much volunteers can do and we needed to put some infrastructure in place to make it work," he added.
Perhaps aware of the popularity of cue sports in Asia, the WPBSA gambled on taking the women's finals out of Britain for the first time in more than two decades, and Ferguson believes there is a strong enough case to keep the event in the region.
"With the help of a local promoter we've managed to bring the world championships to Singapore. I have to say it has opened my eyes a little bit in terms of the number of players that want to compete in this part of the world," he said.
"We are looking hard in this region at the moment, particularly this event. We are more likely to move it around Asia in the future, possibly Hong Kong or China," Ferguson added when asked if a return to Singapore for 2018 was likely.
"China for me has been an exciting development. I have seen it grow from the beginning and we now have a successful academy in Beijing that churns out champions. That proves that with the right facilities, you can create great players."
For today's players, though, the trip to Southeast Asia was fun yet expensive with Germany's Diana Schuler admitting that competing on the circuit was more a labour of love and the 300 pounds ($370) she won for reaching the last 16 would only soften the blow to her bank balance.
Ferguson, however, is confident that greater participation will lead to greater entertainment with a net result of more revenue and the stemming of the flow of talent away from the sport in search of better possibilities.
"The one thing that we have worked out is that if we can provide entertainment that people will want to watch then the television and viewers will come," he said.
"We have had some great players, Allison Fisher and Kelly Fisher to name just two ... these women could compete on the open tour but we lost them to American pool because they had more lucrative events both in the U.S. and Asia.
"Once they started winning money, they tended to stick to it. We have to make sure we provide both opportunities to compete and prize money where a core number of players can compete regularly on a full-time basis."
($1 = 0.8099 pounds)
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)