This month’s PoolSynergy topic has to do with mass media in America, namely television, and its effect on the pool industry. PoolSnark is our host this week and the rest of the blog posts can be found here.
So this is a topic that has been talked about more and more over the past few years. As most of you reading already know, pool on television in American is dying a slow and agonizing death. I have my own personal views on this of course, as do many people who have invested so much of their blood, sweat and tears into this sport. I hate to say it, but as things stand right now, I think that there is no room for pool and billiards on television in the United States.
There are a couple of reasons that I believe this. First and foremost is the American culture that we live in. It’s a very impatient society. Everything that happens in the U.S. is about the “Now! Now! Now!” mentality. Everything from how we eat, (the effusion of fast food joints around the U.S. is pretty staggering if you really sit and think about it), the way we drive, to what we watch on television is fast paced and action based, an artificial adrenaline rush. How many times, in the States, have you gone out to eat a nice meal, and polished it off quickly only to become bored afterwards? Dinner used to be a 2 hour affair. Now, a sit down dinner, just as an example, might last an hour before you are either bored or are “pushed” out the door by the staff to free up a table.
Americans habits in television have changed as well. Shows are progressively moving away from family oriented topics to more action and drama. The sedentary and often simple but common family issues often dealt with in shows such as “My Three Sons”, “The Brady Bunch”, “The Cosby Show” and the like have given way to high dollar productions such as “Lost”, “The Amazing Race”, “The Jerry Springer Show”, “The Real World”, and other shows of their ilk. Sports fill a very large roll as well in what Americans watch. The major sports take up a large portion of that, with shows such as SportsCenter being extremely popular due to their one-stop shop sports news broadcast. The appeal is quite understandable considering the change in viewership habits. Sports news broadcasts take the most exciting aspects of an event and condense it into a 30 second to two minute clip, complete with color commentary by the host.
One particular phenomenon which has gripped Americans has been the poker boom. If you ask anyone, (not a hard core player), in particular what they think about pool on television, and they will most likely say that it’s more boring than golf…about equal to watching the grass grow in the desert. If you ask that same person if they enjoy watching poker, whether it is the WPT or WSOP, they very possibly will think that it’s exciting television. And it’s due to production, and the amount of money being played for. The WPT and WSOP franchises have worked very hard to make what is, from an observer’s standpoint, an extremely boring game, exciting. Key hands are picked out and then edited together to make the hour long show. I watched an actual final table play out, and it took better than 12 hours. However, when the television show was aired, it only took two hours to air, minus commercial time. But it was good television, filled with drama and in a format where any person could understand when something significant happened, such as a well played bluff or a mistake made at a critical juncture. Also, if you again ask that same American to name some of the top pool players in the world, they might spout out with, “The Black Widow”, or “that blonde English chick, Allison something”. Ask them about professional poker players, and they’ll most likely be able to spout off about 5-6 names right away. The players on the poker shows are encouraged to display who they are to the television cameras…with tact of course. But if they should choose to not use tact, so much the better; controversy is the fuel that feeds good television.
So where does that leave pool? Is the television future of pool fully edited trick shot and speed pool competitions with the occasional WPBA event? For the short term, absolutely. Currently, there is no feasible way to market pool to the greater public. For lack of a better term, pool on television is just plain boring. Even for me, someone who loves the game and will always play it in one fashion or another until I physically cannot, watching pool on television is arduous at best. Part of it is the commentary, part of it is the sedentary ways the show portrays the players’ personalities. I can only imagine how it is for someone who does not know that the shot that was just made, although looking rather simple, was a difficult shot to execute. As it stands now, professional pool is dying here in the United States; at least as far as television is concerned. Eventually, it will be difficult to find even the speed pool and trick shot shows which are currently being aired. But I think this is for the best, because we have, in the current socio-economic environment, hit the proverbial glass ceiling…unfortunately the ceiling is getting lower and lower, and the sport has no momentum to break through. That momentum is gained by getting ordinary, non-pool playing people to want to watch.
Step 1: The Break Down
Before we are able to cultivate an audience for pool in the United States, we have to cull the mind-set of Americans that pool is boring to watch. That will take time. How much time? I have no idea. Might only take a few years, could be a full generation. But the idea of tearing something down to build it back up better than before is used all the time. Being a military guy, it’s the same concept that we use when we train civilians to be Soldiers. You break someone down, and build them back up. That’s what Basic Training/Boot Camp is all about; and at the same time they get the basic skill training that every Soldier must know. But the majority and most important parts of the training are mental aspects. In rebuilding the general public opinion that pool on television is boring, we must almost take a militant approach. Strip it down to the bare bones, until professional pool in the United States is almost completely dead. Now, there are a few tournaments which have too much history and prestige to just stop. The U.S. Open and DCC amongst others should continue. Outside of those major events, there shouldn’t be too many other open events. This is going to cause some things to happen.
1. By decreasing the number of major professional events held here in the United States, the ones which remain will hopefully, (I realize it is a 50/50 toss-up on this), maintain their status quo in attendance or even increase by causing the pool-playing community to focus only on a few events, rather than having a large selection to choose from.
2. The American professionals will be forced to ply their trade in other places, such as Europe or Asia.
The second point is key. Overseas, there is a most definite market for pocket billiards and cue sports in general on television. Matchroom Sports is a great promoter of cue-sports overseas. Their work has a great production value, great hype built in, and they encourage the players to show their emotions.
I’m going to digress here for a minute. On the topic of players displaying their emotions I say let them do it. While I fully respect the fact that this is a gentleman (or woman’s) game, my opponents, and the game in general, it’s only human to convey emotion. Whether it is sheer joy, anger, disappointment, disbelief, or even rage. That’s why I just shake my head at people who say that Earl “the Pearl” Strickland is a disgrace to pool because he says what he feels and isn’t ashamed of it. I’m not saying that everyone should go out and act like Earl; quite the opposite. People should act themselves. If they normally would get upset due to a particular event, then they should let it show. Just because you’re playing in a tournament does not mean that you should act like a robot, (unless you are of course). Being polite, not showing your emotions, or working hard to cover them up is a sham, as are over the top celebrations, snide comments or arguments when it does not match the personality. We need to get away from the mind-frame that you have to be a statue while you’re in the chair. As long as you aren’t sharking your opponent, I think you should show as much emotion as you normally would. It would give some character to the game. It would give the opportunity for personality conflicts to develop. When you have two sides pitted against one another, it is a polarizing event. People drift one way or another. Professional Wrestling had this formula down decades ago in the form of “Babyfaces” (heroes) and “heels” (villains). Pool in America needs that kind of spark. Pool in America needs those dynamic personalities who ignite controversy when they’re in the heat of battle. If there had been mainstream coverage in the States of the Mosconi cup a few years ago we may have had it. The 2007 Mosconi Cup where Darryl Peach threw the pacifier on the table following his match with Earl is a great example. Such a controversial move would have lit a fire under some. Remember up above when I said that controversy is the fuel that feeds good television? Ok, let’s get back on track…
Step 2: Build an international fan base
While professional pool stagnates and all but dies off in the United States, those American professionals who can, should be playing overseas. There are enough events there, with at least decently healthy paydays that they can play tournaments often enough to survive, and take care of people back home. The other thing that this will do is it will further familiarize the foreign market to the top American players. Stevie Moore just placed 5th at the Thailand Open. Shane Van Boening and Rodney Morris won the World Cup of Pool team competition in 2008. Those are the most notable international accomplishments of American pool players recently. We haven’t really been setting the world on fire. Part of this is due to travel, and acclimatization. If our players are over there more often, they will see more and more success as a result. The more success they have, the more popular, or unpopular they will be with the international audience. As they say, good or bad, publicity is publicity. The more familiar the foreign audience is with our players, the more marketable they will become. With pool being as popular as it is overseas, especially in Asia, (where a majority of the world’s population resides mind you), our players can become much more well known to a larger audience if they are playing over in that area more often. And depending on their demeanor while competing, they will either be the “heel” or the “babyface”. Can you imagine what kind of notoriety a World Cup of Pool team like Earl Strickland and Dennis Hatch would create in Asia? Either way, they will have that attention that the sport needs. But even with American pool players increasing their marketability overseas, becoming a value for companies to step in and effectively sponsor them, it will not yet be time for pool to flourish here in the States. There has to be something that Americans can identify with…whether they enjoy playing or watching pool or not.
Step 3: The Catalyst
There has to be an event that will draw Americans in, not because it’s pool, but because they have a common interest in the outcome. National pride is what is most often used when discussing what bonds most Americans together. A great example would be the most recent World Cup. Seeing the fan compilations of celebrations people had when Landon Donovan scored his goal showed how energetic Americans can be when watching their country competing against another. The Mosconi Cup is a fantastic event which pits the top American shooters against the best in Europe. Why not take this a step further and include teams from Asia? The Middle East? South America? Canada? Tennis has the Davis Cup, which is very similar to this. It’s a formula which has worked for years.
Another event which could cause this type of reactions in America is the World Cup of Pool. 32 teams from all over the world competing against one another in doubles format. As witnessed a month or so ago in Manila, it is an emotional roller coaster of a ride. The match between Taiwan and Philippines was incredible. Roberto Gomez and Dennis Orcullo were physically beating each other up throughout the match they were so pumped up. (Though I will say that Dennis being so small, he was definitely getting the worst of it) It was absolutely amazing television. The players were fired up and weren’t afraid to show that emotion. If the World Cup of Pool became a circuit, with multiple stops using the same format, with more teams, it could be a winning recipe.
So whatever this catalyst is, it needs to be able to polarize the American audience and cause them to identify on a nationalistic level with our American professionals. If the television is exciting enough, the American audience will want more…and right away. When that happens, we have to be ready. We need to have the ability to get more events like that to the American audience. There will not be a worry of sponsorships because our players already have their sponsorships in place overseas. It could be as simple at first as bringing a World Cup of Pool or World Pool Masters event to the States. When the large, non-pool industries see that it has become marketable, they will line up to get their name plastered all over. This is how you bring in the outside sponsors. This is how you would provide an influx of money to the sport, so that our professionals can ply their craft back home and be able to earn a respectable income. At that point, it becomes a marketing scheme. Get the players out to the general public. Public appearances, charity events, pro-ams…all of these things will happen.
At that point in time, perhaps the everyday American who plays pool twice a year, might be encouraged to head down to his local billiard parlor, and shoot some stick…because he wants to be just like the guy who he saw waving the American flag after an exciting match against the Europeans on ESPN.