Thursday, 20 October 2011

Are players being blackmailed?

Ronnie O'Sullivan has never been afraid to speak his mind.

The BBC quoted him this week saying he feels bribed into playing in the PTCs.

"I feel blackmailed," rapped Ronnie.

"They put these ranking events on and ranking points at these tournaments and it just feels like the winner's prize is not great."

The winner of each PTC tournament takes home £10,000 and 2,000 ranking points. O'Sullivan has won two of the seven events played so far this season but makes light of the prizes on offer having earned more than £6 million throughout his snooker career and enjoyed five spells as world number one.

While Ronnie can afford to sneer at the reward on offer, the prize for players who don't go all the way, or even lose in the first round, is even paler.

Ronnie added: "Most players are going there and losing money, but they're putting ranking points on so it's forcing the players to play in it, which is not great, but what do you do? You have to go.

"The lower-ranked players can't afford it and the top-ranked players don't really get rewarded for what they do, so no-one is a winner.

"But I have to play in them, there's not a lot you can do, you've got to do it. But I don't agree with them."

You have to admire Ronnie. He's not afraid to pack a punch and is only voicing the opinions shared by many other top players.

We already know Stephen Maguire and Mark Allen feel the same.

Allen said: "For me now there are only crappy PTCs from now till December 3rd when the UK Championships starts," while Maguire told  Snooker Scene: "I’ve lost all respect for the ranking system. All anyone is looking at is the cut-off points and if I won’t drop down then I won’t play in a PTC.

“I feel like a bit of a prostitute, turning up for these events because I have to. Some of us got stick (from Hearn) for not entering tournaments because we wanted more time with our families. It’s up to me if I choose not to enter an event. If you don’t want to play you shouldn’t be forced into it.

“If you travel anywhere now you’re out of pocket unless you do really well.”

While on the face of it, this smells like like case of a spoilt professional sports stars throwing their toys out the pram, do they have a point?

As an outsider looking in, I do have an ounce of sympathy for the players. From six tournaments a year, Barry Hearn has completely reinvented the game to such an extent that the calendar is packed beyond belief with scarcely a weekend free to do the more important things in life like spending time with their families.

For sportsmen who not too long ago were pretty much playing part-time, this is a harsh adaptation.

But I'd like to be quick in pointing out that snooker players are not alone in paying the price for a successful career, even though I agree it shouldn't be at their own expense.

If they're expected to live weeks on end out of a suitcase and travel the world to promote the sport as it goes global, they should at least be expected to be well paid for it. I don't think this is always the case.

That said, the PTCs are fast becoming the foundation tournaments of the professional tour and it's been hinted at before that these smaller events are the equivalent of players buying their ranking points.

With competition in the rankings more fierce than ever, it's becoming harder and harder for players to refuse entry to these PTCs whether they like playing in them or not.

But as for being forced to play in them, that applies to no-one so long as they're prepared to accept the consequences. Stephen Hendry found that out to his detriment showing everyone that refusing to play in them does come at a price. He's now ranked outside the top 16 after refusing to embrace the series. That's the harsh reality in a sport which now refuses to protect its top stars against a decline in the rankings.

Ronnie could find himself in a similar boat to Hendry if he struggles for results in the upcoming PTCs but, I struggle to feel for him. That's because the real reason he's perilously close to sliding out of the top 16 his poor form in the other traditional major ranking events.

O'Sullivan withdrew from last season's Shanghai Masters and German Masters as well as this season's Australian Open. That coupled with first round exits in the Welsh Open, China Open and UK Championship means he's fighting for his life. But to blame the PTCs is a little rich.

You only have to take a look at the likes of Mark Williams and Ding Junhui to see no player is being blackmailed. They can now afford the luxury of skipping a few PTCs having secured enough points elsewhere to sit comfortably within the top four rankings in the world.

In a calendar so packed, you would expect the top players to pick and choose where they play. But if they haven't picked up the results to afford it, there's no-one to blame but themselves.

The PTCs may be a tough old grind for the top pros, unaccustomed to life in the cubicles in front of small crowds but, when players asked for more tournaments, Hearn answered the call.

Sure, the PTC series is not perfect but for some players, they've been a god send.

Tour newcomers have as good a chance as ever of retaining their professional status nowadays. Many players have profited from rapid rises up the rankings, while others have managed to secure their first ever ranking titles.

Match sharpness is as high as its ever been and fans are able to watch more snooker than ever before. So, it's definitely not all doom and gloom.

The sport is in a much healthier position than years gone by and I'm positive the PTCs will only get better. In fact, I expect revisions to the series to come sooner rather than later, namely at the end of this season.

The PTCs mean snooker is being played on an even playing field, and I like it.

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