Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Is Pool a Sport?

By: Markus NoƩ

The question of "is pool a sport" has been a popular topic among pool players, fans and promoters for decades. The 2018 Olympic Games opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea is this Friday February 9th. As each edition of the Olympics comes and goes this nagging question consistently resurfaces, because for many promoters of Cue Sports such as myself and Erik Hjorleifson the Olympics is the Holy Grail.

Could you imagine? Worldwide acceptance that pool is a sport means governments would be willing to put money into it like they do in all Olympic Sports. Countries would have Academies for their "pool athletes" with strong junior programs. The stigma which still prevails in North America of a smokey room filled with gamblers, drug dealers and drunks would be gone.

In my early to mid 20's when pool was really starting to take a hold on me, that question seemed like an easy one answer. My immediate reaction to whoever dared pose such a question was an emphatic "Yes", usually followed with an eye-roll. Once I started to compete and play stronger players and saw what it took to become great it became clear to me instantly that pool is a sport. Just in the amount of hours it takes to become world class, the drills, the travelling to tournaments the 10 hour plus days to win a weekend tournament it is clear that a significant commitment needed to be made.

Now in my early 30's having improved my own game as well as my overall understanding of the state of pool overall, I find my opinion on whether or not "pool is a sport" has evolved and continues to do so. Currently my belief is that there is enough work and sacrifice that goes into becoming a world class pool player that it should be put on par with other sports such as Golf and Curling. However there are some major issues that die hard's like myself and others have to be honest with ourselves about when comparing pool with other worldwide recognized sports.

For me it begins at the very top with World Pool Association. Pool is in such a fragile state that among the old guard it is frowned upon to point out anything negative even if its true. We here at Cue Sport Nation have often been in hot water because of our willingness to call out an association, promoter and so on. However we are also quick to praise when the occasion calls for it. I am a believer that a strong World Pool Association is good thing for pool and is necessary in terms of getting pool into the Olympic umbrella and to growth of pool overall. However what we have now is basically a defunct association and as Chinese promoters and others are making clear an unnecessary one.

I have explained this several times in articles but here is a quick recap of what the WPA does. They wait for a promoter with enough money to meet their prize pool requirements, they depend on them to get a venue and basically most of the promotion is also on the promoter. The WPA runs a website where players can go see a list of rankings, upcoming events and so on. They provide little promotion of their events and rely on sites like to post their coverage of World Championships otherwise they might go unnoticed all together by North American fans. 

In World Championships and other major events that want to recognized as a "World Event" which require a minimum $350,000 prize fund to be sanctioned, they take 5% in administration fee's.  The WPA uses this fee's to cover travelling cost for their board members and to presumably progress pool. However I have never turned on my television or any of my social media accounts and have come across a WPA commercial.

Furthermore they have been ineffective at pushing their authority in terms of rules and regulations. Virtually every tournament I play in has a different set of rules, call shot, 9 on the spot break from the box it is endless the amount of rules there is, and at the pro level they go through the same thing. With the WPA in its current state they are not respected enough for anyone to care about sticking to playing world standardize rules in 8,9 or 10 ball. This causes an inconsistency that is detrimental to the growth of pool. If I play golf in Europe or in North America the rules are the same. In soccer an offside is universally understood if we are all not playing under the same rules then how can pool be considered a sport?

The next issue would be things like racking. Unless a template rack is involved or special rules enforced where one cannot "load a rack" by touching balls after they remove the rack then some strange things can occur, especially in 9 ball. At the professional level it is no real secrete to anyone the 9 ball rack has been conquered. With a tight rack the wingball goes in at virtually any speed and if a template is being used you can soft cut break and shoot the 1 into the same top corner each rack if you get a feel for it.

When a template is not being used and there is no rules in a rack your own event then some players have became wizards at "gapping" balls. The prolific ones can ensure not only the wingball goes but sometimes another ball with it and an automatic shot at the 1 ball. This has made the game too predictable and more of a racking contest than one of elite skill because at a certain point most players can run out racks that have zero clusters or "problem" balls. Again I cannot tee up a golf ball a certain way that will guarantee me a 400 yard drive and a chance at eagle or birdie every hole.

The next issue I have a hard time wrapping my head around when it comes to answering whether or not pool is a sport, is the drug an alcohol issue. Drugs is an issue in all sports, I am a big fan of Mixed Martial Arts and these athletes are constantly getting in trouble for the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs or "PED's."   It is a fact that athletes in major sports like to use marijuana and drink socially. However what is really never seen or heard of in  other sports is for drugs or alcohol to be used openly during competition.

This is by no means a judgement but I have been to tournaments with world class fields and have seen top players puff the magic dragon, or indulge in a few beers openly during competition. Not to mention those using cocaine, speed and adderall. Now what sport can you openly use and abuse drugs and its not a punishable offence? It is also clear that players who are using drugs are winning. I mention drugs and alcohol not because I am a prude I am far from it in reality however it demonstrates another area in which there is no standard.

That is the real issue keeping pool from being recognized as a sport is its lack of standards overall. Combine this with flimsy rules and a weak World Pool Association and we have our current state of pool. Snooker has been in the discussion several times for being included in the Olympics and has even been close to achieving this. Barry Hearn from Matchroom Sports runs Snooker and holds it to a high standard and currently it is light years ahead of  pool in respect and prize pools.

Hearn puts on some of pool's most successful events such as the World Cup of Pool, The World Pool Masters and the Mosconi Cup. He was also once responsible for the World 9 Ball Championships and had a first place payout of $100,000. Unfortunately he had a very open disagreement with the WPA and the World Championships have never been the same since. First place now hovers between $30,000 and $40,000 for over a decade and some years we don't even have an 8 or 10 ball championship at all.

My current answer on whether or not pool is a sport for now would have to be no it is not. It has all the makings of a sport however it is unorganized and in its current state untenable. This is by no means a death sentence but just a routine check up. To me the quick answer is players need to band together and hold themselves, promoters, and various associations to higher standards. Shane Van Boening has already started this by boycotting certain international events and there have been more than a few players who are following his lead. Perhaps the current institutions and gatekeepers of pool needs to be starved to the point of extinction and a renaissance of sorts needs to take place for pool to really ever be put back on track?  Feel free to leave a comment or share this article change starts with a discussion.