Barry Hearn believes snooker is back “on the road to success” as the Dafabet World Championship heads for a thrilling climax.
The World Snooker chairman has masterminded the sport’s renaissance in recent years, with record prize money, an expanded global tour circuit and a surge in television audiences.
BBC viewing figures for The Crucible are up by more than two million this year, compared to 2013, while Eurosport attracts “record audiences” of 120 million viewers – at times 50 per cent higher than last year.
Yesterday, Hearn unveiled the latest addition to the snooker calendar – the £300,000 Grand Prix to be broadcast on ITV4, who have also signed a five-year deal to screen the Champion of Champions event at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
Hearn also revealed Sky have signed up to a ‘snooker week’ which will show The Seniors and the Shoot-Out from Blackpool in March.
Set to the backdrop of two thrilling semi-finals – Ronnie O’Sullivan leads Barry Hawkins 6-2, while Mark Selby … Neil Robertson – Hearn is buoyant about snooker’s future.
“Snooker bottomed out a few years ago and we are now on the road to success,” Hearn told a press conference in Sheffield.
“We’re enjoying a rather sensational World Championship. I know we say it every year, but it seems to me to be getting better and better – the figures seem to be justifying that as well.
“Firstly, in light of the success we’re experiencing globally, it’s reassuring to know they’ve not forgotten about us at home as well.
“I’m delighted to announce a new five-year deal with ITV4 for both the continuation of the Champion of Champions, which was previously only a one-year deal but had sensational figures, and they’ve also come in for another tournament which will be called the World Grand Prix.
“It’s a name from the past but a different type of tournament. This will take place from March 16-22 – every ball will be televised live by ITV. We’re just working on the venue at the moment.
“It will be the top 32 players on a one-year ranking system from the beginning of this year’s World Championship. It will be a £100,000 first prize, a £300,000-plus tournament and a valuable addition to our free-to-air coverage in the UK.
“Without being complacent, with ITV coming in for five years, Sky happy with their snooker week, the Eurosport figures running at times 50 per cent higher than previous years, we are in a very strong position.
“This tournament, as far as the BBC is concerned, has also performed admirably well. So far over 19 million viewers have tuned in, our average audience is five per cent up year-on-year, and our total audience is over two million viewers more than this time last year.
“I appreciate Ronnie O’Sullivan is a huge ratings driver, but this goes beyond just one player, which pleases me even more.
“Eurosport are attracting record audiences throughout this event - reaching 120 million viewers throughout Europe and, despite the absence of Chinese players, we’re still hearing of some record figures coming out of there as well. Good news for all of us.”
On the table, O’Sullivan showed why TV figures are rising with some stunning snooker in the first session of his semi-final with Hawkins – a repeat of last year’s final.
He cruised past Shaun Murphy with a session to spare in his quarter-final and was similarly clinical yesterday as he established his authority by sweeping the frames after the mid-session interval against the world No 4.
O’Sullivan was quickly into his stride with a 63 to take the opener but he strangely turned down a long-range plant in the second and Hawkins, who had spoken in the build-up about the need to punish any slip from his opponent, was true to his word with a 96.
A 76 followed in the next as Hawkins took the early lead but the roles were reversed in the frame before the interval as Hawkins missed a long red and O’Sullivan cleared well.
The resumption was cagey as both players appeared to struggle with the table, but O’Sullivan set those worries aside to make a frame-winning 80 after Hawkins missed a red with the rest.
Another tricky missed red from Hawkins let O’Sullivan in for the next and though he could only make 30, Hawkins’s response was ended on 40 by a kick and O’Sullivan cleared with 39.
A 108 in the next frame made it 5-2 and he potted a superb opening red in the last frame of the session. He broke down on 30 but Hawkins played a poor positional shot on a pink and later missed a simple red, allowing O’Sullivan to win the frame.
Last night, Selby…..