Billiards misses the cue to shed stuffy image, get eyeballs

Pankaj Advani in action during the Six Red World Championship 2016 in Bangkok: One of Billiards' bigger stars, Advani is reticent, non-controversial and anything but pompous of his achievements. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

There was little to suggest, through the week, at the Karnataka State Billiards Association (KSBA) in central Bengaluru that a World Championship was underway. Despite some of the game's best players in the house, the playing hall was largely empty and quiet; except for the final, which was packed, there were fewer than a dozen spectators - and half of those were invariably players' families.

The answer possibly lies with the sport in question - Billiards.

At a time when sport is being tweaked to fit capsule-sized formats, and keeping in mind decreasing audience attention spans, billiards sticks to tradition: Players dressed in waistcoat and bowtie, matches sometimes lasting seven hours long. Billiards evolved from a lawn game similar to croquet played in the 15th century, and doesn't seem to have changed much since then.

Its younger cousin, snooker, ticks the right boxes. It's faster, uses more balls (15 as opposed to the three of billiards) and generally enjoys a wider profile across the globe. In Myanmar, for example, snooker is the growing sport; billiards languishes in obscurity. "Youngsters in Myanmar take to snooker a lot more than they do to billiards," Myanmar's highest-ranked billiards player Aung Htay told ESPN at the World Championships. "Billiards is viewed as old fashioned."

It seems almost everyone in the game agrees with that, but nothing has been done about it. "The rules of the sport have to be tweaked," says reigning national billiards champion and this year's World Championship silver medallist Sourav Kothari. "Billiards is getting monotonous, especially the long format. You have to jazz it up, bring more noise into the sport." The absence of a marketable star with a magnetic personality - someone who would venture beyond the staid and predictable, and maybe even engage in the occasional trash talk to fan viewer interest - has also hurt the sport. Pankaj Advani, one of its bigger stars, is reticent, non-controversial and anything but pompous of his achievements. Rivalries in sport work like a charm. There's very little of it in cue sport. The ones that exist aren't storied or publicized enough. "We need a couple of good rivalries to latch on to people's imagination," feels Geet Sethi.

"The absence of a marketable star with a magnetic personality - someone who would venture beyond the staid and predictable, and maybe even engage in the occasional trash talk to fan viewer interest - has also hurt the sport."

A primary concern for the sport is its lack of television coverage. A crushing blow in frenzied times such as these. The reason again lies in the sport itself: not being spectator-friendly enough. Talking to ESPN, Peter Gilchrist admits despite decent attempts at making the game shorter, little has changed. "We've tried everything: 50-up, 100-up, 150-up, points format, time format but unfortunately there's still no people. We probably need a bunch of girls in bikinis," he says, over a laugh, "At least it worked for beach volleyball."

While shorter formats, like the 100-up, which essentially means a player would have to first score over 100 points to win a frame in a usually best of five frame format which can last anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour are more popular among a wider base, it hasn't really translated into tangible numbers for the sport.

Geet Sethi, easily India's most celebrated name in billiards, argues that the relevance of the sport in the 21st century isn't a fair question, choosing instead to focus on the factors which contribute to its 'peripheral' status. "To make billiards spectator friendly is a tough call," he says, "Given that we've tried the shorter formats as well. Take a sport like shooting or archery for instance. They're really boring to watch and anything but spectator-friendly, but being a part of the Olympics has changed the dynamics. We need to be back in the Asian Games at least, to start with."

Cue sports were part of the Asian Games from the 1998 Bangkok edition, but were dropped at the 2014 Games in Guangzhou due to financial constraints. It does not feature in the Commonwealth Games either. That makes the Olympics a pretty long shot. "Getting into the Asian Games would be a huge boost and would lead to a revival. The future of billiards, I feel, lies in making a comeback at the Asian Games, which would be fantastic. Or else we would be plodding along like we currently are," adds Gilchrist, agreeing with Sethi.

One way, Kothari suggests, of making the game more interesting is by adding a circle somewhere on the table, either by way of a thin round film or a laser beam. "We could say that if there's any ball in that circle and you score points from there you get 30 extra points," he says, "The circle could be put in a very difficult spot in the table, where the ball cannot go too often, maybe inside the D and we could have a blue ball as one of the strikers instead of having a spotted white and spotted yellow one. If the ball stops inside a particular circle, you lose a point that you scored or if it stops inside a particular zone you lose your visit and a certain number of points. We need to change the way viewers see the game. We need to make it more colorful. Maybe the white can be done away with totally and we could have a green or blue striker instead."

Ascribing billiards' sagging interest to a sea change in the sponsorship scenario, Gilchrist says that through the 1990s when ITC sponsored billiards events, there was money in the sport. "Since tobacco sponsorship ended, billiards too is more or less gone," he adds. ITC was known to have spent close to Rs 250 crore annually in sponsoring cricket, golf, billiards, tennis and horse racing events before pulling out in 2001 following the central government's decision to ban advertising and promotion of tobacco products. It did, however, return following a three-year hiatus to hold the 2005 Sunfeast Open tennis tournament in Kolkata. "Billiards needs an influx of cash to pick up. It's not really a spectator sport. It's more of a strategic game and the best players make it look far too easy," says Gilchrist, who won his first world title in 1994.

"Billiards needs an influx of cash to pick up. It's not really a spectator sport. It's more of a strategic game and the best players make it look far too easy." Peter Gilchrist

While a snooker and pool league is in the works for a possible March 2017 launch in India, billiards isn't part of the plan. Hosting the ongoing World Championship cost the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) close to Rs 70 lakhs, out of which the primary sponsor, Karnataka Tourism, paid Rs 15 lakhs. "The lacunae lies within the federation itself," says BSFI secretary G Balasubramaniam, "We are unable to promote the event (World Billiards Championship) because of our limitations. Private sponsorship is little. What is worrying is that even for a big-ticket snooker event like the Indian Open, which is beamed live and well-promoted it is very difficult to find willing sponsors."

Earlier this month, the sports ministry in association with the BSFI inaugurated a billiards academy at the Talkatora stadium in New Delhi and the idea, Balasubramaniam adds, is to replicate the effort in five centres across the country. "It is divided into two sections: one for beginners and the other for players," he says, "It's been less than a fortnight so far and the numbers are on the rise in the beginners section. Also our application for promotion of billiards in schools and colleges is pending."

An oft-talked about disincentive of the sport is its need for infrastructure to be played: Table, balls, cue, unlike say football or cricket. The accessibility to such facilities being limited to high-end social clubs or pool parlours makes it instantly unappealing to a large section of people. The jury has also been long out on the need for the sport to shed its bowtie-waistcoat dress code and become more casual, funky, colorful and most importantly, relatable. Kothari, though feels the sport is synonymous with its look. "I like the waistcoat, maybe not the bowtie. It adds to the grace of the game." Gilchrist had a more ingenious idea to offer. "We should probably turn up in trunks," he says, cracking up.

While billiards' future, some might suggest, hinges on its ability to reinvent and package itself better, Sethi has a word of faith. "There will be periods when we'll have brilliant players, good rivalry and it will become popular. Then we'll go through a lull phase. It could be alternating decades possibly," he says.

"Billiards is a great survivor."