Snooker’s elite players are under no pressure to play in the lucrative but controversial new tournament in Saudi Arabia, World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn has said.
The ranking event with the biggest prize money will take place in Riyadh in October, with the champion earning £500,000 from a total fund of £2.5m.
Hearn said the decision to go was made for the “betterment of our sport” and “we go, invest and create”.
“Every player can go or pass,” he said.
The Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters will see the country host a ranking event for the first time in 2020 as part of a money-spinning 10-year deal.
However, human rights organisation Amnesty International has highlighted the country’s “abysmal” human rights record. Heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and women’s rights have been raised, as has the use of the death penalty for offences not recognised as crimes under international law.
The Kingdom has sought to stage sporting and entertainment events in a bid to attract visitors and move away from its oil-dependent economy.
Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title victory over Andy Ruiz Jr took place there in December, and boxing is far from alone in staging events in Saudi Arabia, with football, motor racing, tennis, golf and WWE wrestling all recently being held in the Gulf state.
But despite accusations that the event is a cash-chasing exercise and also part of a calculated attempt by Saudi Arabia to cleanse its image through ‘sportswashing’, Hearn is adamant the long-term vision has honourable motives.
Use of female referees ‘a step forward’
Hearn says it is a chance to bring about change, and offers as a sign of progress, the fact that female referees will be used.
“We are all aware of the situation, but sport knows no boundaries in our view and we are there to spread the gospel of sport, and in this case the gospel of snooker,” the 71-year-old said.
“There are probably half a dozen countries in the world that have human rights issues. Whether you consider that to be a transitional stage of a country’s development or whether you say ‘I am not having anything to do with them’ – I would rather communicate, have conversations and try to move forward.
“Sport can be a conduit for achieving that, given time. But it does take time.
“The fact we are using women referees is a major step forward.
“I am impressed with the attitude of the Saudi government and their investment in sport because they are making a push to make their younger people more active and that can only be beneficial. Sport is an issue that moulds countries together. It forms character in young people. It gives expression and an opportunity to those that may not have it. There is a bigger picture.
“It’s important to realise that every country has their own culture. There will be countries where we don’t agree with their culture and there will be countries that don’t agree with ours.
“So rather than get it over-complicated, I find it is easier for me to concentrate on what I am good at, which is the development of sporting opportunities. And perhaps, part of the by-product of the success of that venture will be a general change that makes everyone feel more comfortable.”
Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, said the glamour and prestige of sport was being used as “a public relations tool to distract from the darker realities” of life in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re not telling snooker players whether they should or shouldn’t go to Riyadh,” he added. “But they certainly need to be aware of how this tournament fits with Saudi Arabia’s recent drive to ‘sportswash’ their abysmal human rights record.
“We’d ask all those involved in the tournament to properly familiarise themselves with the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about it.”
A Saudi spark
Hearn, who has just passed the 10-year anniversary as chairman of snooker’s commercial arm, wants to double snooker’s current prize pot of £17m in the next 10 years and continue its “globalisation”.
A rebranding from World Snooker to World Snooker Tour is designed to give a new look, “probably following on the lines of the tennis ATP Tour and golf’s PGA Tour” and give “a significant standing within the sporting world”.
Hearn added: “We have had a fascinating and fabulous 10 years. We have woken up this sleeping princess and have done well.
“We have gone from prize money of £3.5m to £17m. There are more tournaments than ever before; we have ticked a lot of boxes.
“The relaunch is a statement that the journey has only just begun. We have achieved all our ambitions in 10 years and now we set ambitions for the next 10. We believe we are a significant player and the future is bright.”
Hearn hopes the move into Saudi Arabia will increase competition and bring about “a natural progression” of even bigger and better tournaments.
“We are there to create an infrastructure of snooker via coaching, via academies, through player visits and universities and schools,” said Hearn. “We are trying to motivate a country and the brief of the Saudi government is we want to be more involved in sport generally.”
World number eight Kyren Wilson, 28, told BBC Sport that the huge prize money on offer and snooker’s global development was “great for the players”.
“Going to new places and growing the sport is wonderful,” said the former Masters runner-up.
“The political side and the ethical decisions are not something that I am involved in. That is down to those in control. As players we often live in a snooker bubble.
“The good thing is that the tournament has a long-term plan, with coaching structures and plans in place to get youngsters involved, which is brilliant. Using women referees in Saudi Arabia is also a big step in the right direction.”
Hearn added: “The bigger picture for us is establishing a global footprint. Saudi Arabia is an escalating contract for 10 years so we have a chance to really make a mark in that territory and we hope other territories will follow.
“People have egos and demands and desires and want to show their country to the best possible audience around the world.
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“Anthony Joshua went to Saudi Arabia and it had massive ramifications around the world, with other countries coming on and saying ‘what about us?'”
The British heartlands
Hearn insists the traditional snooker strongholds in the UK and Ireland will not be overlooked. The Chinese market is still a key target and India remains a major focus, but the WST will not be “turning eyes away from any opportunity anywhere in the world”.
“We respect the traditional heartlands,” he explained. “We have a lot of support there and they have history. The new markets don’t have history yet, but given time they will do.
“We are looking at the world, not just our parochial attitude with where we have been and come from. Every major sport has followed the same pattern. There is a big market out there and in today’s world it can be quite easily monetised which takes it to the next level in terms of prize money.
“Our job is to maintain our Triple Crown events [the World Championship, the UK Championship and the Masters]. They have so much history that we still have an obligation to make sure they are still of relevance.
“But professional sport is governed by prize money and opportunity, and if we are trying to be an aspirational sport for young people around the world, we have to set our bar high. You are only limited by your own imagination.”
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