Desmond Kane

O’Sullivan’s split from snooker painfully necessary

Desmond Kane

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As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary. Ernest Hemingway has that quote attributed to his name.

It would take more than a brief line from Hemingway, or any other literary character from yesteryear, to succinctly describe the life and times of snooker folk hero Ronnie O'Sullivan, a fairly fabulous chap with a cue who has splashed his own palette of colour all over a table of colours since turning professional in 1992.

The news of O'Sullivan's separation from the sport, a divorce which it must be noted is not yet confirmed as permanent, has prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth because, like Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins before him around three decades ago, the Chigwell man is viewed as such a heroic figure to so many, among all ages for his ability to create a form of black magic. His untimely passing will be mourned by millions, even if only for several months.

To understand O'Sullivan's widespread, almost mystical appeal beyond the hushed environs of the sport that made him, one only has to study footage of the opening two days of the World Tour tennis finals at London's 02 this week.

During a fairly turgid match between Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Monday evening, various television producers thought it notable to focus on O'Sullivan, who was gazing on with some interest. Little did we know that an announcement beckoned the next day that would see O'Sullivan withdrawing from snooker for the rest of the season citing "personal issues".

He was back among the tennis lot on Tuesday witnessing Roger Federer accomplish the tennis equivalent of tearing Janko Tispsarevic limb from limb. It was a level of sporting excellence which O'Sullivan himself revelled in when snagging his fourth World Championship gong by throttling Ali Carter 18-11 in May.

A colleague pointed out to me that television would hardly focus in on Mark Selby if he washed up at a rugby match, or even Judd Trump, the man who replaced Selby as snooker's highest ranked performer, if he was spotted with an array of lovelies. The dilemma that snooker faces in its longing to remodel itself is that for too long it has been based on a flawed business model of one man being almost as big as the sport.

Whether or not this is fair, it remains as obvious as O'Sullivan's claim to be called the greatest player to brandish a cue, a status that he arguably holds despite being three adrift of Stephen Hendry's collection of seven world titles.

When the World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn was drawing up a business plan to catapult snooker back into the reckoning, or at least the conscience of the sporting public in the country where the game continues to be based, he perhaps forgot to mention the gorilla in the room: namely that the great sell for snooker lies inside the head of one man, and the goings on that continue to fascinate folk about Ronnie O'Sullivan away from snooker.

This is not some idle boast. An illustration of the effect O'Sullivan has on snooker can be discovered by studying the viewing figures for this year's World Championship on Cover It Live, a medium increasingly used by various media outlets for fans to interact with each other and provide commentary on live events ranging from sports events to political rallies. A comment piece from a Cover It Live analyst illustrates it better than I can.

"A championship 44 years in the making captured the attention of many Social TV viewers last week, what many call the PGA's fifth major also resonated well with Cover It Live users, but no event was bigger than Eurosport's World Championship snooker coverage as it captured the top spot in the weekly Cover It Live Social TV rankings.

"Droves of snooker fans kept their eyes fixed to their computers, tablets and mobile devices last week as they watched and chatted live during Eurosport's World Championship coverage. Eurosport drew in excess of 400,000 viewers to its live chat that saw Ronnie O'Sullivan claim his fourth world title with an 18-11 win over Ali Carter at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre."

A Norwegian newspaper attracted 140,000 viewers to the final day of the Premier League season with Champions League football and coverage of the Tour Championship in golf snaring paltry figures by comparison.

Eurosport commanded 406,208 users, the vast majority eager to learn if O'Sullivan's game would hold up over 17 days. Not only did it hold up, but he simply ravaged the field with his potting, break-building and tactical game a fair distance superior to any of his competitors.

It makes his decision to retire all the more galling when he is clearly at the peak of his powers. Privately, Hearn will surely lament being without O'Sullivan in his arsenal even if publicly he will put on a brave face.

O'Sullivan replaced Alex Higgins as the "People's champion" when he usurped Hendry to win the UK Championship at the age of 17 in 1993. He appeared on This Morning speaking to Richard and Judy at around the same time his father was being banged up for murder.

I have heard a few stores about O'Sullivan breaking down in tears in private over some of the goings on in his personal life. Who knows what effect a lack of a father figure has had on O'Sullivan's compass? If O'Sullivan has been suffering from depression, it is certainly better that he takes time away from the sport if he wishes. The brain is a funny instrument. O'Sullivan should be wished well in his recovery from any sort of mental turmoil.

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Let us hope he is not finished with the sport, but of course he cannot go on forever. If he does not return, he leaves snooker a better place than when he found it. So often derided for childlike conduct, O'Sullivan should be applauded for giving sponsors plenty of notice that he will not be around this season.

With snooker being played what feels like every other week in China, the pressing matters for snooker is raising the profile of figures such as Trump and Neil Robertson et al in the country where it is based. This will prove almost impossible with only three tournaments on the BBC in 12 months.

The UK Championship in December is followed by the Masters in January. The World Championship comes into view for 17 days in May before snooker disappears from the collective conscience for eight months. This is a far too long a fallow period. There must surely be another tournament brought to the masses by some other medium.

Snooker remains a slave to tradition in that it goes into hibernation when interest in the sport has been aroused to maximum exposure. It does not make much sense for snooker to close down at the point when it is most open for business.

Snooker has more crowd-pleasers than just O'Sullivan, but they must be outed. No sport can continue to move forward with such a fragile outlook of projecting the notion that it only has one in its midst. The next few months will tell us what snooker feels like without its blue chip event, certainly on terrestrial television.

But there is also a sensation that O'Sullivan's departure from snooker may yet be best for both sport and sportsman.

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