Snooker has a reputation for being a genteel game, where good etiquette is paramount and players often dress in waistcoats and bow ties. But that classy image is taking a beating amid allegations of match fixing and a lengthy ban for one of the top players.
Britain's Stephen Lee, once ranked fifth in the world, has been banned from the game for 12 years by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association for rigging seven matches in 2008 and 2009, including one at the world championships. The sanction is the longest ever in the sport and comes after five-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan alleged there were "many more players who throw snooker matches."
This is a critical time for snooker to be facing its worst scandal. After falling out of fashion, the game has been making a comeback thanks to soaring popularity in Asia. The number of pro tournaments has jumped nearly sixfold in three years and total prize money has more than doubled to $14-million. Any suggestion of systemic match-fixing could slow that growth and ruin the sport's carefully crafted image. Sensing that, the WPBSA has moved quickly to quell the controversy over Mr. Lee while sharply criticizing Mr. O'Sullivan for suggesting the corruption was widespread and the sport was covering it up. The association demanded proof and Mr. O'Sullivan has backed down, issuing a statement saying he was "only referring to rumours."
"Despite the bad news that we've had … look at snooker," the WPBSA chairman, Jason Ferguson, said in an interview. "It is a gentleman's sport. We are actually very proud of our brand." The Lee case, he said, shows the sport will "stand up and be counted and deal with issues when they come along."
Snooker has come a long way since its invention in the late 1800s by British militia serving in India. The game later took on an upper-class persona compared to its cue-ball cousin, pool. Snooker balls used to be made out of ivory and gentlemen played in clubs as opposed to dingy pool halls. Snooker aficionados insist it requires more skill than pool because it's played on a larger table with smaller pockets (snooker uses 22 coloured balls, while pool has up to 16 coloured and striped balls).
The game became a hit on British television in the 1970s and 1980s, with the 1985 world championship final drawing 18.5-million viewers. But then came a steady decline: Soccer took over after the creation of the English Premier League in the 1990s, and other arguably more exciting sports flooded cable TV. A government ban on tobacco sponsorships in sports hurt as well, since most of snooker's backing came from cigarette companies.
By 2009, British viewership had sunk to two million and the number of major tournaments had dwindled to six. Facing disaster, the WPBSA recruited legendary British sports promoter Barry Hearn. He had made a fortune transforming fringe games like darts into television spectacles and he immediately started revamping snooker. Mr. Hearn made matches more TV-friendly by shortening them and promoting players' personalities. He also launched high-octane events like Power Snooker and Snooker Shootout, and he encouraged more women to get involved.
The changes appear to be working. The number of pro tournaments has increased to 32, with more to come across Asia, where TV viewership is rising; that's particularly true in China, where snooker phenomenon Ding Junhui has become a hero. India will host its first big snooker event next month, and matches are now broadcast in 77 countries.
In Canada too, the home to former world champion Cliff Thornburn, the sport is on the rise. Snooker clubs are popping up across the country and Canada hosted the world junior championships last year. Next year, the Richler Cup will be held in Montreal in honour of author Mordecai Richler, famously a snooker fanatic. "It's definitely making a comeback here," said Patrick Guigui, who runs Snooker Canada.
Yet amid all this success, the Lee case casts a dark shadow. Evidence presented at his disciplinary hearing this month offered a bleak picture of a player in deep financial trouble throwing games at the behest of a group of bettors that included his business adviser, his manager and a collection of friends. Fixing the matches didn't appear to be all that hard to do, and it took years for the association to figure out what happened. The bettors won about $160,000 and split some of that with Mr. Lee, the board found. Mr. Lee, 38, who also faces a $66,000 fine, has denied the allegations and may appeal the sanction.
To be sure, other sports have faced similar scandals – notably cricket and soccer; in the latter, a massive betting ring was only recently uncovered in Singapore. But snooker had yet to face anything this serious.
"Unfortunately with the betting industry as it is, it opens the doors to do that," said former snooker pro Willie Thorne, now a TV commentator in Britain. "It's just greed really, just greed."