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American Pool: Past, Present, and Future

The Beginning of American Pool

The game of pool debuted in America in the 1700’s & the father of American Billiards is considered to be an Irish-born player named Michael Phelan (April 18, 1819 – October 7, 1871).

His father was an Irish immigrant who owned numerous pool halls in New York City & in 1823 Michael made the long journey to join him in America from Ireland. Although he didn’t start playing until 15 years old, Phelan quickly grew into the first billiards star in the US. In 1859 he won the first high stakes match for $15,000 in Detroit. Besides his shooting skills, Phelan published the first American pool book “Billiards Without a Master” in 1850 & the first American pool article in 1859. He played a major part in creating the rules & establishing etiquette standards for the game. Michael was also the creator of the diamond system to help with aiming & a table designer/manufacturer with his company Phelan & Collender. In 1884 Phelan & Collender merged with J.M. Brunswick & Balke to form the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company whose future successor would be Brunswick Billiards, currently the largest manufacturer in the nation. It only took 100 years, but Michael Phelan was finally inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1993.

Did you know?

Eight-Ball was invented just after 1900, Straight Pool in 1910, Nine-ball around 1920, but amazingly the game of One Pocket has been around since 1775 & already had a complete set of rules by 1869.

Then Came Pool on TV & In the Movies

From the 1870’s - the 1940’s billiards maintained national popularity, but after World War II the priorities of Americans had shifted towards home ownership, family, & career. By the end of the 1950’s most pool rooms had closed & the game seemed doomed, but then came “The Hustler” in 1961. The critically acclaimed movie starring Paul Newman as “Fast” Edddie Felson gave pool a huge boost to for decades. Unfortunately there was another decline in pool popularity after the Vietnam War & it wasn’t until 1986 when “The Color of Money” was released (starring Tom Cruise & Paul Newan) that another movie reinvigorated the sport. This exciting momentum was maintained by televised matches from the WPBA (Women’s Professional Billiard Association) & other men’s events on ESPN2 through the 1990’s until 2015. Unfortunately the last 5-10 years have been yet another tumultuous time for billiards with ups & downs alike. A dramatic decrease in events lost the WPBA their ESPN2 contract because they could no longer fill the required 25 hours of coverage needed. There were some moments of hope in reality TV with “The Hustlers” (2015) & “In a Man’s World” (2019), but the impact was short lived. The greatest potential for sustained success is Matchroom Sports taking over large events including “The Mosconi Cup” & “The US Open”. Matchroom is a successful superpower in sports who may be the final swing into the mainstream that billiards needs.

The Future of American Pool: Live Streaming & Social Media

During the ‘90’s & ‘00’s hosting a billiards event on TV(ESPN2) was a great marketing tool for casinos & sponsors. Well we have arrived in the future & must evolve or die! Cable TV has been taken over by Netfilx, Amazon & YouTube. For the most part the older generation of pool player & pool promoters, are nowhere to be found online. As one of the most “followed” billiard personalities on social media, I admit to having a love-hate relationship with branding, marketing & self-promotion. Bottom line, it doesn’t always feel genuine...but it’s the way the world works today! In order to stay relevant one must expand their fan base, increase engagement, build/maintain a website, & create brand recognition.

It is really important to recognize how insanely fast things evolve. At the beginning it was all about MySpace, Facebook & Twitter. Then YouTube & Vine. Now Instagram, TikTok & Twitch are all the rage & at 37 years old I must turn to my teenage step-kids to help keep me relevant. Unfortunately billiards is not a mainstream sport, so if you are a pro player, pool business or a pool tour you must work twice as hard to stay relevant.

My biggest advice is get young, fresh & creative. Look for a young intern outside the pool world. Variety of content is key! Fans love free stuff & you should love giving it to them, in return for engagement & strengthening your brand. Hire someone to create a killer logo. Go above & beyond.

And to all the pool fans out there…please support billiards by following your favorite player, pool clothing line, online group or buying something from a small pool business. I believe billiards can evolve and stay current, but we must change & we must support each other. Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article & I humbling request we all choose Evolution!

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