World Snooker Chairman Steve Dawson has sensationally hit back at Ronnie O’Sullivan’s remarks over the current state of the sport in a lengthy statement.
The response comes after O’Sullivan had unleashed an astonishing tirade on WST bosses earlier in the week, questioning their direction and encouraging his fellow players to go on strike.
O’Sullivan claimed that snooker is in “the worst place it has ever been” and described those in charge of the sport as “not the brightest sparks.”
The 47-year-old will return to The Crucible in less than four weeks to launch his quest for a record eighth world title but will do so in the backdrop of unrest behind the scenes.
Snooker has been rocked by a match-fixing crisis in recent months which has seen 11 players suspended from competition pending an investigation, including two recent Triple Crown event winners.
In addition, a financial crisis has resulted in the cancellation of the Turkish Masters and reduced prize money as WST continue to await the green light to return to China – a hotbed of the sport which had hosted a number of lucrative tournaments prior to the global pandemic.
A players’ meeting was held with WST representatives in Leicester last Wednesday prior to the WST Classic, however O’Sullivan was not present and players were prevented from discussing vital aspects of the agenda in public.
In a statement posted on the official WST website on Wednesday, Steve Dawson slammed O’Sullivan’s comments, claiming he could have earned more money had he entered more tournaments and questioning his role as an ambassador for the sport.
Dawson, who took the helm following the retirement of Barry Hearn in 2021, said: “Ronnie is a fantastic player and a legend of our sport, but sometimes his misguided comments go too far. I feel it’s necessary to respond to some of the damaging remarks he made to the press this week.
“Firstly, Ronnie has never attended a players’ meeting or engaged with us to discuss his opinions. There are three formal levels where he can provide feedback: through the WST Board, through the WPBSA Players’ board or through players’ meetings, and he has not engaged through any of these channels. He also has my number and is welcome to speak with me directly.
“He often compares snooker to golf and tennis, but I would challenge him as to whether for his part he elevates the sport and acts as a role model like a Rory McIlroy or Roger Federer. We are striving to take snooker to a higher level, but we need the players to be ambassadors in public, and to communicate any concerns they have through the right channels. Comments like those from Ronnie this week are damaging to us as a sport – and they’re unfounded.
“In 2010, the commercial rights of snooker were awarded to Matchroom Sport. In that time, snooker has grown exponentially around the world. At the time there were six tournaments and total prize money of £3.5 million. This season there are 21 events. Prize money reached £15 million before the pandemic and is currently at £11 million. The dip since 2019 has been principally caused by the inability to stage tournaments in China whilst the country was in an unprecedented lockdown. We are determined to resume a full schedule of events in China in the near future, and at that point our tour will be stronger than ever.
“During the time that we have run the tour, Ronnie has earned £7 million in prize money, including the £500,000 top prize at the World Championship last year. No doubt, with his talent, it would have been a lot more had he chosen to play in more events.
“Our long-term strategy is to increase the number of events and prize money, and to bring us closer to the levels of the leading individual sports such as golf and tennis. We work alongside global giants such as IMG on this ambition. There are many individual sports, including popular Olympic sports, where the levels of prize money are significantly lower than snooker. For now, we are more than holding our own for the nature and size of the sport.
“The fact is that our global television audience is higher than it has ever been, as is our digital audience. In the UK, we have smashed ticket records on many events this season, including the Masters where Ronnie played in front of 2,000 enthusiastic fans in London. Despite the economic climate, fans in the UK are coming to our tournaments in bigger numbers than ever. This does not suggest a crisis!
“He also played in the Hong Kong Masters, a tournament we brought back to the calendar this season, where he won the title in front of 9,000 fans. It is tough to create new events during a global recession, but we have maximized opportunities to keep the calendar full and we will continue to do so.
“His comments too often are disrespectful to snooker’s dedicated management, the sport’s commercial and venue partners, and to his fellow players. In the past he has described lower-ranked players as ‘numpties’ but they love the sport just as much as he does and our role is to give them opportunities to compete. This season we have provided every player with a £20,000 income guarantee to help them pay expenses and develop their careers.
“He suggested that players should go on strike – but why? That certainly won’t drive new revenues. He also claims that players are frightened of being fined for giving their opinions but again this is not borne out by the facts. The number of players fined for comments made in the media is tiny – generally they are given much more freedom than athletes in other sports because we want them to engage more with the media and the fans. If Ronnie took advantage of his own massive global popularity to be a true ambassador for snooker then he could work with us to drive the sport forward for his benefit and for the sport as a whole.
“Snooker is bigger than any player. The sport will continue to grow and we have no doubt that in the years to come it will be more successful than ever before.
“My message to Ronnie – and all players – is come and talk to me and the team. Our door is always open.”
O’Sullivan pulled out of the ongoing WST Classic due to an elbow injury, meaning he is unable to qualify for the upcoming Tour Championship – the dress rehearsal for the World Championship starting on April 15.
He will head to Sheffield having not competed in a major event for a month as he looks to retain the crown and eclipse the joint record of seven world titles currently shared with Stephen Hendry.
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