Why don’t Americans love their billiards players as much as the Brits do?
Congratulations to Stuart Bingham who, this past May, defeated Shaun Murphy to win the Betfred World Snooker Championship, a tournament that reached more than 330 million viewers last year. In winning the £300,000 (about $457,000) prize money, Bingham said, “Just to put my hands on that trophy, seeing all the names on it, that’s just everything. It means so much.”
In a tribute to Mr. Bingham and the popularity of the Snooker Championship, I watched “Snooker” (November, 1984) from the second season of the British television comedy Ever Decreasing Circles that ran on BBC1.
The series revolved around Martin Bryce (Richard Briers), an obsessive, middle-aged man from East Surrey who harbors an ongoing jealousy toward his new, younger, next-door neighbor Paul Ryman (Peter Egan), an adventurous, confident, charming playboy, who is seemingly better at everything than Martin.
“Snooker” begins with Martin imploring his wife Ann (Penelope Wilton) to assume the 32nd spot in the local snooker tournament he is organizing. Winning this tournament means the world to Martin, having starved himself for two days in past years when he was only a runner-up.
Echoing Mr. Bingham, Martin yearns to hold the winner’s cup, which he fantasizes about “polishing every day.” When Ann rebuffs him, he begrudgingly asks Paul (who he had intentionally overlooked,) fearing Paul will again demonstrate his dominance over Martin. (This obsession with not living in the shadow of another man is a recurring theme in British television. See the far more laughable Steptoe & Son episode “Pot Black,” which tackles this very issue.)
Just as Mr. Bingham, the oldest winner of the Snooker Championship since Ray Reardon won in 1978, defeated the younger Mr. Murphy, so too does the dowdy-looking Martin vanquish the impeccably attired Paul, albeit for a host of comedic reasons I won’t divulge here. Equally farcical is Martin’s ultimate loss to his friend Howard Hughes, who temporarily sheds his meek mien to win the match.
Though there is little snooker shown, what makes this episode incredible, particularly to an American viewer like me, are the snooker references, each punctuated by the laugh track, an implicit affirmation that the 12-million-person audience understands the joke, and thus, the reference.
Case in point: Seventy five seconds into the episode, Martin, having asked Ann to participate in the tournament, quips, “Steve Davis plays with women now.” Putting aside the dated gender humor, the audience laughs because it is familiar with Mr. Davis, the English snooker player who dominated the sport during the 1980s when he won the Snooker World Championship and was ranked world number one for seven consecutive seasons.
Given Mr. Davis’ stunning achievements, it is little wonder he is a national icon. But, for American audiences there is sadly no counterpart, no billiards player that could be referenced with similar recall and reverence.
Minnesota Fats may be the one exception, but his legend is more due to his role as an entertainer than as a pool player, for he never won a major tournament.
In fact, Mr. Davis is not the only player instanced. Later in the episode, Martin is dumbstruck when Paul unsheathes a new cue from its carrying case. Paul shares, “I borrowed the cue from a mate of mine, Tony.” “Tony Knowles?” asks Martin. [Audience laughs.] “No, Tony Meo,” replies Paul. [Audience continues to guffaw.]
For the aforementioned reasons, this is again a remarkable exchange. Tony Knowles shot to prominence in 1982 when he defeated Steve Davis in the first round of the World Snooker Championship. He was ranked #2 when “Snooker” aired. Tony Meo, whose highest ranking was 10, was largely known for winning four World Doubles titles.
To viewers of Ever Decreasing Circles, these were evidently household names. But, can you imagine a similar conversation about American billiards players?
It is lamentable that less than a nano-sliver of US TV viewers might have heard of Johnny “The Scorpion” Archer, or Earl “The Pearl” Strickland, or even Jeanette “Black Widow” Lee.
Here’s a painful exercise: add up the number of Twitter followers of America’s top 10 current or former players. There’s no definitive list (e.g., Earl Strickland – 4090; Mika Immonen – 4268; Jeanette Lee – 4711), but I doubt, in aggregate, the sum will exceed 25,000.
Now, compare those followers to those of some of Britain’s superstars (Shaun Murphy – 58,500; Ali Carter – 43,000; Ronnie O’Sullivan – 301,000). The numbers dwarf their US counterparts, providing a non-scientific, yet truly painful, reminder once again of how billiards has failed to attract an audience in the United States compared to other parts of the world, such as England and Southeast Asia.