Snooker’s long-awaited arrival in Saudi Arabia is set for March but it is coming in an unexpected form and has raised even more questions than you would anticipate from a trip to the Kingdom.
In 2019 a full ranking event, the Saudi Arabia Masters, was announced, boasting a top prize of £500,000 which matched the World Championship.
Covid meant that didn’t happen, and while it is ‘still in the pipeline’ what we have instead for a first trip to Saudi is the Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker, a non-ranking event featuring the top eight in the world rankings and two wildcards.
The tournament also brings with it a somewhat daft new feature in the shape of a golden ball. As the press release states: ‘This gold ball will be worth 20 points and can only be potted once all other balls have been successfully cleared from the table if a player is on a maximum break to make it 167.’
The gimmick is hardly the most important part of the venture into Saudi Arabia, but it has predictably gone down badly with snooker fans, who don’t tend to be thrilled about change at the best of times.
The gold ball smacks of some requests the Saudis made when they brought the world of professional wrestling to the country, with the WWE landing in 2018.
The first event was called The Greatest Royal Rumble, taking one of WWE’s showpiece events that dates back to 1988 and making it the biggest it has ever been, with 50 wrestlers in the battle royal rather than the traditional 30.
There was also a request for legendary former champion Yokozuna to be involved, the only problem being that he died in 2000, so WWE chucked sumo wrestler Hiroki Sumi into the match to do their best to keep the paymasters happy.
When Saudi Arabia pumps in the cash to host an event they want history to be made and that is what they want with the golden ball, for the tournament to produce a first ever 167 break.
It’s a bit naff. It’s a bit tacky. But the people holding the pursestrings want it so they will get it. We can only hope that if a ranking event does come around in Saudi Arabia then the golden ball will stay in a box and off the table.
Or maybe not. Players actually seem keen on the innovation, showing a disconnect between the fans and the people making money out of the event.
Judd Trump likes the idea, saying: ‘It’s completely different. They’re trying something different, and hopefully all the players can get behind that.
‘I think every player wants to be the first to do something, so it’ll be a great achievement if I can do it.’
Shaun Murphy told PA: ‘It was heresy when the Shoot Out was brought in as a ranking event – people were nearly out with torches on the streets – but I haven’t met a single person who has been to the Shoot-Out and not enjoyed it.
‘You should never criticise something unless you’ve tried it. It’s just something different and it’s not the first time the sport has tried new ideas. I imagine the [World Snooker Tour] had to make a few concessions to get the event over the line, and the new promoters in Saudi will want their event to stand out and be different. At the end of the day you’d rather have the event than not.’
On the possibility of a golden ball being used in a full ranking event, world number 50 Anthony Hamilton told Metro.co.uk: ‘It’s a bit ridiculous isn’t it, but because of players’ personal finances, they’re not going to complain. If it means we’re getting paid, it’s good.
‘It’s not great, you’d rather play normal snooker and that be enough, but if they stipulate they want a gold ball in a ranking tournament then so be it. If it means people are getting paid, it’s got to be done.’
The golden gimmick grabbed headlines, but it is obviously not the real issue over snooker, or any sport, heading to Saudi Arabia.
It is unlikely you have come to the sport section of Metro.co.uk for a lesson on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but Amnesty International have set 10 of them out plainly, from an increase in executions to discrimination of women to no free speech.
This has not been enough to put off other sports from getting into bed with Saudi Arabia and after the dealings with football, golf, boxing, F1 and more, it was never going to put snooker off either.
Murphy continued: ‘Obviously there is a question over human rights, as there should be, but if we only traded with countries with perfect human rights records, it would be a very, very small pool to pick from.
‘We wouldn’t be trading with the UK either. We haven’t covered ourselves in glory over hundreds of years, going around invading other countries, so people in glass houses need to be careful where they throw their stones.’
Hamilton echoed those sentiments, saying: ‘Where are we going to play? Are we going to play in Scandinavia and nowhere else because that’s the best place in the world? There’s always a reason why we shouldn’t be going to a place.’
Where the line is drawn on that front is a personal choice. Snooker is heavily reliant on China, a country currently accused of crimes against humanity and genocide.
China has contributed a lot to the sport, with a range of ranking events benefitting the whole tour, investment and talented players joining the professional ranks. It seems very unlikely that Saudi will tick all those boxes, with this move more of what we have come to know as sportswashing than in China.
However, there is certainly hope that more benefits will follow from this relationship. Turki Alalshikh, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) and the face of many of Saudi’s sporting investment endeavours, says there is much more to come.
‘I hope this relationship continues for many, many years. We’re supporting a lot of things with Matchroom. They are professional, they are good,’ he said alongside Barry and Eddie Hearn.
‘We want a lot of things from them and I think with the ideas together we will have a success to deliver a dream for the fans of this sport.’
What is clear is that Saudi Arabia is not beyond any line for decision-makers and players. They have seen the riches made in other sports and want a piece of the same pie.
The only real complaint from within the game seems to be from the rest of the tour not invited to take part in this first non-ranking event, with players missing out not impressed.
Former pro Steven Hallworth tweeted: ‘Was starting to lose sleep with worry that the top 8 players might run out of events and cash soon, thank God for this.’
Hamilton was more philosophical on this point, though, not begrudging anyone making money out of the game and looking at the positives of what it might bring for other players.
‘It’s good for those eight players, I’m genuinely happy for them,’ he said. ‘They’re the best players, they work hard. They’re getting things that I wish I had when I was in the 16. They’re starting to get paid accordingly now for their skill levels. That is a positive, I think.
‘If any other players would rather nothing than this, then that’s just spiteful. I don’t begrudge any snooker player earning money because I don’t think snooker players get paid that well, when it comes to how hard it is.
‘It’s all about demand and interest, of course, but just looking at how hard something is to do, I think snooker has been underpaid over the years. That’s just the way of it.
‘So good for them, and if it does open the doors to a ranking tournament then that will be good. Clearly the people who need to be communicating to make that happen are communicating, so that could be good for the future.’
With football’s World Cup heading to Saudi Arabia in 2034, a big splash in the world of cricket expected soon, and the biggest fights in boxing seemingly now rehomed in the country, the sporting winds are blowing Saudi’s way and are not slowing down.
Snooker is a small part of their project and is happy to be involved. Sport’s with much more financial might than snooker have jumped aboard the gravy train, so it is unrealistic not to expect WST and Matchroom to dip their bread in as well.
Fans will have to deal with it like they have in other sports, but most will be hoping that there is limit to where this relationship extends to.
A small invitational event leading to a bigger ranking tournament is one thing. Should the World Championship leave the Crucible for a new home in Riyadh is entirely another.
Whether the powers that be and the players share that concern, though, is yet to be seen. Hamilton suggests that those with a cue in their hands are unlikely to kick up a fuss.
‘In sport you’re just chucked into the snakepit and you’ve got to try and make a life out of it,’ he said. ‘If players need the cash they’ll say yes to almost anything. It’s the way of the world. Money talks.’
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