If you think gambling and scandalous behavior is what holds professional pool back, you’re wrong
In the 1920s, Ralf Greenleaf and Willie Hoppe Dominated pool and billiards and rivaled Babe Ruth for sports page headlines. People filled arenas to watch them play and they were as famous as the most popular actors and athletes of their time.
In 1954, Willie Mays hit .345 with 41 home runs, 110 RBIs, and won the MVP while leading the New York Giants to a World Series Victory over the Cleveland Indians. Oh, and there was “The Catch”. He earned $12,500.00, or about four times the national average for the rest of America.
Also in 1954, Willie Mosconi ran 526 Balls in an exhibition in Springfield Ohio, and he dominated the World Championship of pool for fifteen years. Willies salary is not public record, but suffice it to say that between tournaments and exhibitions for Brunswick, it was at least comparable to other athletes of the era.
For the next forty years, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, boxers, tennis players, and golfers all saw salaries and purses rise to unthinkable amounts while pool players still earn money comparable to what their predecessors made decades earlier.
Why? To start with, they continued to reach more fans year after year while pool reached less.
If you ask the average pool fan or enthusiast today, why pool continues to lag behind other competitive sports when it comes to earning potential, the two most common responses are gambling, and scandalous characters. That sounds fine, but it is wrong.
Baseball survived the Black Sox scandal in 1919 when the World Series was fixed.
Paul Hornung and Alex Karas were suspended from the NFL for a season for betting on football.
The NBA had a referee on the take by gamblers and bookies less than ten years ago.
Anyone who has ever watched more than six horse races has seen one fixed, and how comfortable would you be if you had to argue that no fighter ever took a dive and Don King never influenced a decision?
As for scandalous behavior, every sport competed in today has been subject to stories of corruption and cheating from its World Champions right down to youth sports. Stories of rape, murder, drugs and infidelity, cheating, point shaving and taking dives have been tied to athletes for over a hundred years, but people still fill stadiums and bet on the outcomes.
If you want to answer the question of why the average MLB player made four million dollars in 2015, while the top American pool player earned 5% as much, you must ask yourself first, where do athlete’s incomes really come from.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a MLB scout that I have known for years, and that conversation changed how I think about athlete compensation. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had just agreed to pay free agent Albert Pujols $240,000,000 over ten years. I suggested to my friend that they had grossly overpaid for a player who at best had four more big years and would decline in performance thereafter.
My friend chuckled at my naivety. The television money coming over the next few years, he told me, would be in the billions instead of millions. He suggested that by the fourth year of his contract, when I had suggested his numbers would start to diminish, the new TV money would make Puhols salary seem average. He was right.
It was at that moment that I realized who actually pays professional athletes and why salaries have continued to climb, and indirectly, why pool had missed the boat.
In 1954, when Willie Mays made his $12,500, Major League Baseball owners paid the salaries of their players based on ticket sales, and they didn’t have to compete for players, because once drafted, a player had only one team he could play for unless traded. Before free agency, a player was stuck with whatever the team thought he should make.
Willie Mosconi was in much the same boat. Tournament purses were a direct reflection of player entry fees, a few sponsors, plus whatever the promoter could take in for seat sales, and whatever he determined the players value was.
In a nutshell, from the 1960s on, salaries and purses in professional sports grew in direct response to television contracts, and television contracts grew because of advertising dollars. Albert Puhols makes two thousand times what Willie Mays made in 1954 because advertisers pay astronomical amounts for advertising time during events.
Successful professional sports from baseball to boxing learned that if they provided the viewers, the advertisers would pay for access to the viewers, and THAT is what pool missed. While baseball, football, basketball football, tennis, golf, boxing, and all the other legitimate professional sports in this country were building an entertaining package that was interesting to watch both live and on television and driving up viewership numbers that could be sold to advertisers, pool promoters were still trying to make their income from green fees and a few industry specific sponsors. Advertisers pay event promoters and leagues by the viewer. Most sports understand that the way to generate large revenues and turn profits is by providing quality programming of entertaining competition. The more viewers they can draw in, the more revenue is generated. And, unlike in 1954, the owners and promoters understand that the higher the purses and salaries, the more interest is generated, and that directly translates to higher incomes for themselves. Ironically, the biggest change in professional sports in the last generation is that the athletes used to work hard to make the owners and promoters money so they were valuable enough to be paid more themselves. Now, the owners and promoters work hard to make the athletes more money, because that raises their own incomes both directly and indirectly through advertising revenue.
I have repeated this so many times in the past couple of years that I am afraid it is becoming cliché and losing the weight of its importance. Pool promoters that count on player entry fees and PPV to make their income are missing the boat altogether.
If the NFL only promoted their product to football players, you could hold the Super Bowl in a High school stadium, and advertising would cost a hundred dollars per column inch in the program. Instead, they are filling the biggest stadiums ever constructed, making billions on advertising and television rights, and ads cost $4.5 million for thirty seconds.
So what should pool do now? Well, the bad news is that the rest of the sports entertainment world has a fifty year head start and market share won’t come easy.
However, there is reason for optimism.
Pool is a very dynamic sport with many different game variations and a very colorful history and some very interesting and unbelievably talented players. The main obstacle right now is that most of the promoters and players don’t understand how competitive the game of sports entertainment is, or how to play it. They are busy playing bumper pool while other major sports are running racks.
Something encouraging has happened in the last few years. With the tech boom came the ability to broadcast events without millions of dollars in equipment. It started with a camera over a table and has progressed to something more and more viewable.
Like many others, I had taken the live stream of tournaments for granted. I had assumed that some guy set up a camera and microphone and flipped the switch to On, and we all got to watch matches and trade barbs and comments in the chat box.
In March of 2015, I took the trip out to The Rum Runner Lounge in Las Vegas Nevada. Daniel Busch of Point of View (POV) Pool was scheduled to simultaneously broadcast the Andy Mercer Memorial Pool Tournament from the Rum Runner and a three cushion tournament taking place the same weekend in L.A. and he was short handed.
Naively, I thought I would use Daniel as an Excuse to go to Vegas and sweat a great tournament and have a few beers.
What I actually got was a lesson about how much goes into the streams that we all take for granted.
I won’t bore you with the technical details that I don’t understand myself, but it was about a hundred times more work than I had ever considered. Expensive equipment has to be transported, set up, and tested, Banners of sponsors have to be hung where they are viewable and won’t get in anyone’s way, pictures of participants taken for social media, interviews and guest commentators, etc. The point is, guys like Daniel and The POV crew have created a media venue and they are increasing interest in the game. Tournaments and players and equipment brands that were known to very few just a few years ago, are now some of the driving brands in the industry.
The point I am trying to make is that free steamers Like POV Pool, the Mezz Weststate tour, and so many others both here on the west coast and across the country are driving viewers to the game and increasing interest. I believe the PPV model of charging viewers for the stream is premature at best, and possibly detrimental to the growth of pool as a professional sport. There are events where it certainly generates a little more revenue in the short term, but the long term goal should always be to drive more viewers to the game. It has been suggested more than once recently that the streamers should be paying the players for using their images to earn exaggerated sums of money. To that I say this: They are not earning nearly what has been stated by some, and they should probably be paid by the tournaments for creating interest that could someday be turned into revenue. On top of that, there has not been enough exposure yet for any player to generate viewership.
The difference between pool and the so-called legitimate sports that are generating large revenues for both competitors and owner/promoters is organization and purpose. Other sports all have player unions or trade organizations so that their best interest can be focused by elected or hired representatives, and organizations of owner/promoters into a coalesced body of rules and regulations that govern play and promotions, and a regularly scheduled set of meetings between them all to discuss the future plans of their prospective sport. They can disagree on details and on dividing the revenue, but they all know that the best interest of their sport is what’s best for all of them.
If I had to make one suggestion to get the whole thing rolling in the right direction, it would be this:
I propose that a letter go out to all professional players, tournament promoters, broadcasters and streamers, and a potential list of writers, stating that a general meeting should be held to form a trade organization for the promotion of professional pool, to be made up of representatives of each discipline, for the discussion and planning of the growth of the sport.
Ultimately, what I believe is that someday, someone will figure out how to make the players rich, and will get rich in the process.