Potting at the rings: Snooker’s Olympic dream

The World Snooker Federation (WSF) was launched last week and its president Jason Ferguson exclusively discusses how the new federation will help snooker become an Olympic and Paralympic sport.

Potting at the rings: Snooker’s Olympic dream

To some snooker is the antithesis of the original Olympic motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ but, to the sport’s champions, it is the perfect fit for a modern Olympiad. 

Now, with the success of new additions rugby sevens and golf at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games showing what traditional non-Olympic sports can add, snooker’s leaders are more keen than ever to put it in the frame. 

After an unsuccessful bid for a place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – for which baseball and softball, karate, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding have been added on an initial one-off basis by local organisers - a new global body, the World Snooker Federation (WSF), has been launched with eye to finally attaining a place at the quadrennial multi-sport event.

The WSF - which will be headquartered in Lausanne - joins the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) and the World Confederation of Billiards Sports (WCBS) as one of the federations within the cue sports.

Jason Ferguson, chairman of the WPBSA and president of the WSF, has been the driving force behind the new international federation and the sport's pursuit of a place on the Olympic and Paralympic Games programme. The Briton discusses the genesis of the WSF, how it will work with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and his belief that a cue sport will be present at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.    

Jason Ferguson, chairman of the WPBSA and president of the WSF, has been the driving force behind the newly formed WSF

SportsPro: You have long stated that is almost your life pursuit to get snooker to the Olympics. How long has it taken you so far? What is the process ahead?

Jason Ferguson: It began, for me, a long time ago.

In 2001, I took snooker as part of billiards sports to the World Games in Japan: bear in mind that we were working with pool and carrom as well. That was the first time that billiards sports had appeared on a global multi-sports stage. 

It was great when you look at what it did in terms of developing the sport in Asia: national federations popped up, many of which were able to get funding because we became a medal sport in Asia. 

At the time, it was more about the sport’s global development rather than just about the Olympics. We had a relationship with a number of amateur federations within snooker. There is the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), the world governing body [of snooker], and there were two representatives from the amateur federations, and we were called the World Snooker Federation (WSF) working all together. 

Then there is the World Confederation of Billiard Sports (WCBS), which is a small umbrella organisation that has snooker, pool and carrom in it. So the representatives of snooker were the WSF.

I went back to that relationship in 2013 with a brand new agreement for the WSF. We wanted to try and put a bit of energy back into WCBS because it had bumbled along for many years - very typically as a sports federation, which can of course be quite political at times!

We worked on trying to put some resources into it and to try to drive the product forward. At the next World Games in Wrocław in Poland, we put together a successful multi-cue sport event for the IWGA [International World Games Association]. We had a great week; it was a mix of amateur and professional players competing together from across the globe. 

In 2015, I took over as president of the WCBS to try and drive forward the Olympic programme. As it happens, we are trying to put things together early enough that we can cement all of the federations, make sure that the governance is strong, ensure that we are robust enough to put together a bid ahead of a bid for the 2024 Games, which is the earliest that we could bid for.               

The WSF is the formalisation of a loose agreement that has been on and off the table for many years. We are putting something together that is quite substantial in terms of numbers of participation both in amateur and professional snooker.

The fundamental idea of the WSF is to launch this member of the WCBS as a formal body properly constituted as a sports association, which it now is, and by doing that it has got significant representation to play a major role in driving the next Olympic bid.       

Ferguson believes that players of the ilk of five-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan could be potting for gold by the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris 

What is the organisational structure of the WSF? What involvement will the WPBSA and snooker’s commercial arm, World Snooker, have in the new body?

World Snooker is effectively a constituent part of the WPBSA - it is our commercial arm. WPBSA is a 26 per cent shareholder of World Snooker; along with us there is Matchroom Sport and various other promoters across Europe. World Snooker is a commercially driven animal.

What we do at the WPBSA is bring profits from World Snooker and invest them into WPBSA. We then use these funds for the sport’s development. That is where the link comes in with the national federations. 

A typical example of this is the Indian Open. The WPBSA went to India and worked with the Indian national federation to create the Indian Open, which is now a World Snooker-controlled event commercially.

The strong relations that we have in China are very similar. These relationships are fundamental to how we can begin those markets and really start to develop, whether it be players, referees, officials, volunteers or however it begins. Some of the relationships have been very, very successful. 

We have, again, done similar things in Europe. Look at the way Eurosport is working well for us - we are now working with more European national federations on finding homes for national events. 

The WPBSA is a board of directors of five; we have an executive team in our Bristol office. World Snooker works out of a Beijing office and Matchroom Sport’s office in London. 

WSF will have three representatives from the WPBSA at the moment. It is myself as president and Nigel Mawer - who runs all of our governance and integrity - who will serve as our vice president. The third member of the board is Maxim Cassis, who is the president of the European Billiards & Snooker Association (EBSA), and he will be our secretary general.   

We will appoint three further members from around the world, which will at the bare minimum come from Asia, Europe and the rest of the world. That will be a core board of up to six people solely there for governance purposes. 

Underneath the board will be a new world council: a WSF council of up to ten people that will be made up of key people from around the world from either regional federations or national federations so that the members themselves have got a committee of the board that can manage its amateur championships and the qualification tournaments for the main tour. 

One of the key points for this is that we are launching a [second-tier] challenger tour in Europe, which becomes a training ground for referees and gets the players used to playing events before they join the main tour. 

We can target our resources better to the areas that we feel are going to grow. Our Cue Zones schools are great example of this: we went to Belgium and worked with the Belgian federation and we took some of our Cue Zone table along and left them there. These tables are now going into the education authorities, with the support of the federation, and we will work together to launch a schools programme in Belgium.

This is one of the key things that we are going all over the world and the creation of the WSF will be able to help with driving these projects forward.

What is your current relationship like with WADA and how closely do you intend to work with them in the future?

WADA will definitely be an authority that we will work with through the WSF. We do, however, have quite a vigorous drug-testing programme within the WPBSA. It is an internal process but we do use the local authorities - ie the national anti-doping agencies. 

We currently don’t do the ADAMS [Anti-Doping Administration & Management System] through the WPBSA but with WSF our vision is to centralise the drug testing globally. 

Where we are at the moment, we will continue our own drugs programme. In fact, I think that we were the first sport that brought in drug testing. We have drugs that are banned in our sport that are classed as TUEs [Therapeutic Use Exemptions] in other sports, such as beta blockers, which calm the heart down. 

Ng On Yee, who represented Hong Kong at the 2017 World Games, is one of the many female snooker stars who would gain an increased exposure from the sport’s inclusion at the Olympics

You said that you will closely with disability sport and grassroots snooker. How do you foresee the WSF aiding women’s snooker in the future?         

One thing that must be stressed is that the World Snooker Tour is an open, mixed-gender tour: we do not differentiate against men and women in our sport at all. 

This is one of my arguments with the amateur International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF), which runs separate men’s and women’s events. We used to give the winner of the men’s event a tour card. Not anymore. 

The sport has to be mixed gender and we have to provide the resources to provide the equal opportunities for women to qualify for the tour.

It is, of course, a fact that there are a lot less women playing snooker than men. In my opinion, this is for historical reasons that come from the facilities rather than their dislike of the sport. When we run our schools programmes it dawned on us that 40 per cent of all of the people that want to carry on playing are girls. 

We have a lot of high-level players such as Reanne Evans - multiple world women’s champion - but she is also a competitor on the World Snooker Tour. She competes at a very high level and actually beat one of the top players at the World Championship this year.  

Everything we do is mixed-gender. We did the World Games this year and we shocked everyone because we announced it as a mixed-gender event. 

What chance do you think that this new launch of a snooker federation will give you of achieving your dream of seeing snooker being played at the Olympics?  

I think it will play a major role. What chance does it have? I think that it has a very good chance. It is our intention to continue to work within the multi-cue world of the World Federation of Billiards Sports with WSF being the snooker member of that body.

My intention is to bring the resources to WBCF to drive that Olympic bid. We can do that. 

For me, I think that our best chance ever will be at Paris in 2024. This is simply because billiards is a traditional French sport - King Louis used to play it in the 1400s. The billiards federation in France is underneath the Olympic committee and they are well organised. They play three cushion billiards in France and to me it makes more sense to play three cushion billiards in Paris.

I remember saying that we would globalise the sport of snooker many years ago and people laughed at it, and we have done it. We have national federations in over 90 countries and global television going to over 100 countries.      

So there interesting times ahead and, to be honest, we wouldn’t be putting these resources behind it if I didn’t think that we couldn’t do it.