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Television and the Future of Pool

This article is from the April 1987 issue of Pool & Billiard Magazine. We wanted to showcase it here as it fits perfectly in this series on promoting billiards and making cue sports more popular and main-stream.

Television and the Future of Pool

A Primer for Getting Pool Televised and More!

'Controversial... sure to be one of the most talked about articles of the year'

Editor's Introduction: The author, Thomas C. Shaw is in broadcasting. Not cue sports. As a matter of fact he's only been a participant of the game for less than a year - but he's been in broadcasting for 25 years.

Shaw was Director of Programming for NCN (a cable network). Creator and Director of Programming for a second cable network. Odyssey (which also had a state-of-the-art one-inch post-production house). He has written and produced specials and weekly syndicated shows. He currently manages and programs a chain of radio stations and has just been chosen Network Manager for a new cable network (Nova Satellite Network) in Florida.

The following article is both informative and controversial. I expect it will be one of the most talked about articles published by Pool & Billiard Magazine this year. It contains things that need to he said and some things that could only be done by someone outside of the billiard industry and in the television industry.

Television and the Future of Pool

The Perfect Sport

I would love to sec pool make it big. It is, for me, the perfect sport. The pressures of work disappear over a 9-foot table; it is a precise and predictable game, it can he played rain or shine, solo or against competition, and I don't have to waste time getting in shape.

It also seems to be the consensus within the billiard industry that TV the door to the dollar. Yet little seems to be known about programming, production, or media marketing.

TV Reality

Television is not audience size: it's demographics (the make-up of the audience). The image of the average pool player is male, 18-49, lower to lower-middle class (it doesn't matter, by the way, if this is true or false because TV is make-­believe and the image is the truth we work with). Not a terribly in-demand demographic with advertisers, and, more importantly, there are already hundreds of ways to reach him.

When I talked with Tom Odjaksian of the Billiards Department at ESPN he confirmed that the sport was "viewed fairly well" but that it was a "fairly tough sell". TV reality is that if everyone in the country wanted lo watch it and no sponsor would buy it, it would not appear.

Remember 18 years ago when CBS cancelled some of the top rated programs in America (Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hee-Haw)? They were big hits, but only with the public. They delivered the wrong demographics to sponsors and sponsors are the bottom line.

The Volvo Story

The Volvo story could be the model for pool. A dozen years ago Rod Laver approached Volvo asking for $12,500 in prize money for a tennis tournament. Volvo said no. But Volvo's president was a fan and player and said yes. Today Volvo spends $3,000,000 a year sponsoring tennis and their dealerships spend $30,000,000 more on local leagues. That's just one sponsor. Twelve years ago tennis wasn't big but it's demographics matched Volvo's: upscale. Median income $54K, 77% attended college, etc. It wasn't a big audience but it was - and is - Volvo's target audience.

Then what about a company like Busch? They sponsor a bar pool league and it's a very good buy for them. But they're all over sports already while Volvo was new lo TV and that's a network's hot button. Shuffling dollars that an existing sponsor already spends has no appeal to me as a programmer. Bring me somebody I don't have.

A sponsor needs a significant event. Producers, programmers, and sponsors don't really know a lot and like the public, need lo have it made simple for them.

Game Problems

There are also a couple of real problems with the games and some imagined problems people arc wasting time trying to "solve".

Reduce luck. The push-out is a good rule because it mitigates luck on some breaks. Big pocket tables are used in tournaments to "speed up the game for TV" and straight pool is alleged to be too slow for TV. But if speed was really the problem, why is golf so popular on the tube? Why do cable nets and occasionally ABC, CBS, and NBC carry the Boston Marathon, fishing shows, and the Olympics, all slow, dull affairs? Bigger pockets are for amateurs and simply make the game look too easy and less admirable. If it were practical I would even suggest returning to 10-foot tables.

A race to 7 or 9 isn't enough, especially for finals and semi-finals.

9-ball itself has some image problems. Its a gambler's game and sponsors don't want a grifter image.

Respect Equals Money

In television one learns to think visually, not about what is happening, but what can be made of what is happening. Post-production (the process of editing, adding bumpers, titles, effects, and voice-overs) can tighten up a world of flaws, pick up the pace, add the 'bells and whistles", create interest and tension.

Though posting can make the show look and sound better it can't add what isn't there. No player should have to play in a jacket, but a tux at a world championship is profitable. Vested suits (also sans jacket) should he standard at any medium or large tournament, televised or not. Upgrading attire at small tournaments will help the income of the pool room and the future income of players. Respect equals money.

TV Talk

Players seem to think they are representing themselves, but they're representing sponsors and need to learn TV Talk. TV Talk is not necessarily the truth. It's entertainment. Sports and TV are parts of the entertainment business.

TV Talk doesn't include pros saying that: A) the cloth is new and players spend 95% of their time playing on used cloth, or B) that they would like the tournament better if it was a race to 15 because it would reduce luck and favor better players, or C) when asked if tournament are getting better replying reluctantly that there is getting to be more money but not yet what it should be, or D) telling the press they were going to enter some small tournaments to pick up expense money.

Here are four TV Talk responses that should have been given: A) that cloth is beautiful, B) that the tournament is exciting, has brought together the greatest stars of the sport and has been a real success, C) that the popularity of the sport is growing in leaps and bounds, and D) that they had been invited to promote the sport at a number of up and coming rooms around the country.

These are random, paraphrased examples from 3 or 4 pros and aren't meant to single them out. I've heard most pros say something similar. Programmers and producers watch for these things and we aren't anxious to put someone in front of a camera when we don't know what they might say.

Sailboats vs. Pool Demographics

ESPN is in the forefront of everyone's thinking because they have carried pool and are the major franchise for non· mainstream sports (who else carried Major League Volleyball?) But when I talked with programming I found that December's big Resorts tournament wasn't going to be aired in early January. Or February. Or even March. Guys in sailboats in Australia were taking all the time. Then came the NCAA and they were trying to find a hole in the spring schedule for pool. How many people play pool - and how many have sailboats? Again we're back to demographics and image. The key is that demographics flow from image and image is manufactured by people with a financial stake.

What this should do is raise the questions: Why think just ESPN? There are dozens of other cable nets that carry sports, ad box networks, PBS, and syndication. The sky high cost of programming has caused some independent TV stations to fold and others art hurting. LPTV's need programming badly. Distribution can be on tape or via satellite (in case of satellite, time is leased in very cheap off hours to transmit, stations receive and tape, then broadcast at the scheduled time). A PBS documentary skewed to their demographics (history, classic footage, the geometry and physics of the game) would be inexpensive and get funded.

What do you sell? First. you need a single national championship. Other big tournaments and the like can come later, but sponsors (and those that pitch ideas to them) need a hook, something promotable. There can be championships in 9-ball and straight pool, but they have to each be the championship, arrived at in an unimpeachable way. And they must happen every year, with a sense of history.

From TV's point of view here are some suggestions...

Perhaps East and West Division Championships, played in NYC and LA, the only national media towns, with 32 chosen from the top placers among players who live either east or west of the Mississippi. The two winners meet in Chicago for the National Championship.

Or perhaps a point system such as the one used in international auto racing. A local or regional tournament with a $5.000 First would he worth 5 points ($2000 Second equals 2 points, etc.) Throughout the year build up the race for points. Of course everyone is playing for the money and we all know that, but it's not good TV to say it. A programmer doesn't want to broadcast "Here's a bunch of guys coming to get money". We want some professional, highly skilled sportsmen going after the points that will crown them the best in the world.

Or is it possible to have state championships and then a national championship, possibly filling out the field of 64 with seed players?

All these approaches give important opportunities for the press and public to get behind "our" guy.

A sponsor wants to be able to tell his friends he sponsored the Championship of the World.

Ancillary rights include home video and some of the things I'll say about it apply to the production of broadcast matches.


Billboard Magazine has started a "Recreations Sports Videocassettes" listing. Number 10 is "How to Play Pool Starring Minnesota Fats", not the best tape perhaps but the only one with a name that appeals to the novice. The fact that it's the only pool tape in the Top Twenty list illustrates the value of PR and TV talk. Fats mastered TV Talk before there was TV.

The pros are great to listen to when talking technique, as proven by the JayMac production of the Sand's Regent tournament. Though minimal posting was done on the tapes (they contain raw reaction shot, hot focusing, and interesting bloopers) they're well worth the money. They should be retailed by every pool room in the country. The same is true of the tapes by Bob Byrne, Grady Matthews, Nick Varner, etc.

Whispered commentary, even when added three days later in post-production adds class. Trick shots, especially in broadcast, are passe. Audio has been an orphan in almost every non-broadcast video I have seen and l think I've seen them all.

If rooms marketed the tapes, hooks, and periodicals such as this one [Pool & Billiard Magazine] it would increase customer involvement and, therefore, revenue. That increased involvement could lead to increased TV exposure.

Letters and phone calls have more of an effect on programmers than you might imagine (though an organized campaign has less). ESPN has a number for viewers that want program information on when their favorite sport is going to appear next (1-203-584-8477, ask for "Communications"). A letter to local sportscasters and sports writers helps.

The Color of Money continued the scuzzy image of for pool but it also revived interest. Now's the time to do an industry-wide paint-up/fix-up, get more women and couples playing, more beginner instruction and positive press. Country clubs will be putting in classic "Billiards Rooms" for the golfers and tennis players to use when it rains.

Pool is on the edge of being hot. If it falls back, nobody's going to make any money. If it turns up the level of marketing and professionalism, it could become a TV staple.

Getting on TV, in itself, won't be the big break for pool. It doesn't work like that. TV isn't out to make a sport popular. Being sell-able and promotable gets something on TV.

Creating tension and excitement, a show that flows, good commentary, and glitter is all nuts and bolts stuff that can be done in production and post-production. As a programmer I need something I can sell. I need a Real Event, some articulate and photogenic stars, a real test of skill, and an upscale image. Then we can talk about a player shooting for the first million dollar year.

Source: This text has been revived from an almost un-readable scan of pages 20-21 of an older issue of Pool & Billiard Magazine

Television and the Future of Pool

  • Title: Television and the Future of Pool
  • Author: (Thomas Shaw)
  • Published: 1/8/2017 5:27:02 PM
  • Last Updated: 1/8/2017 6:31:28 PM
  • Last Updated By: billiardsforum (Billiards Forum)
  • Source: Pool & Billiard Magazine, April 1987 Issue

Television and the Future of Pool

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