This article is part of Volume 8 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the June 2010 edition of PoolSynergy for other great articles over at Untold Stories: Billiards History. The theme for this month is “How Can We Fix Pool?”
R.A. “Jake” Dyer is the host of this month’s PoolSynergy topic. For volume 8 of PoolSynergy, Mr. Dyer has challenged us to come up with ideas to “Fix Pool,” but what does he mean by the phrase “Fix Pool?” I presume he is referring to the unenviable financial state that most top pool players find themselves in. Over the years, several polls have established the fact that billiards is one of the largest participation sports in America. Does this broad grass roots support translate into nice salaries for the top players in the game? Consider salaries taken from other top participation sports in America. The following numbers are average 2009 salaries (medians) for professional athletes in their respective fields: Baseball: $3,000,000. Basketball: $3,000,000. Football: $800,000. Golf: $549,000.
Not too bad huh? How much can a professional pool player hope to make? $200,000? $300,000? $500,000? Guess again. The most talented players, even the ones at the very upper echelon of the pool food chain, only manage to bring in about $53,000 per year on average in tournament winnings. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no surprise that most top pool players are forced to supplement their ‘normal’ earnings from tournament winnings with income from other sources, such as corporate endorsements, books, lessons, gambling, or (gasp!) a regular job. Why is there such a disparity between these sports, and how do we fix the situation?
Let’s take a closer look at the sports listed above and ask the following question: “Where does the money come from to support these salaries?” Asking this question may help us determine why the same revenue streams are either completely absent or not present at a reasonable level for the billiard industry. Some people believe the answer to getting more money into the industry coffers is to try to land movie deals, TV deals, cable programming slots, newspaper coverage, corporate sponsorships, etc. I disagree. These are all items that could help bring in money for a very select few in our industry, but all of these ideas are driven by a single purpose: to make money for someone who is outside the industry. Think about it. Why do beer companies advertise during baseball games? Is it to promote the sport of baseball? NO! IT’S TO SELL BEER! Why do BMW and Mercedes-Benz advertise during golf tournaments? To support golf? NO! IT’S TO SELL CARS! These corporations are simply trying to send a message to the baseball or golf fans of the world to try to get them to buy their products. Now, let’s bring this knowledge home: Who outside the billiard industry is trying to sell to us? Are we really a good target market for someone else’s marketing department? Think about it. What would make some Coca-Cola or other Fortune 25 company marketing executive stand up in a crowded boardroom and exclaim, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Why don’t we market our (fill in the blank) to all the pocket billiard fans out there?” Hummm…not likely to happen. Think about pool from an outsider’s point of view. What does pool have to offer to a company that is OUTSIDE our industry? Are we the type of people that a company would want to market their products or services to? Do we have money to spend? Do we have buying power?
While you ponder those questions, allow me to share some of my own observations and present recommendations for action that could potentially lead to a better financed pool industry. This in turn could lead to larger tournament payouts that are supported by higher participation levels, sponsorships, and advertising. This could even lead to (gasp!) some stable salaries for our top touring players.
Observation 1: What do baseball, basketball, football, and golf have in common? For one thing, they all have very large and diverse fan populations. Women and men, young and old, people who have played the game, and people who have not, rich and poor. What is the allure? What appeals to such a diverse group? Why do people attend pro games, watch them at crowded bars, or with large groups in their homes? In my opinion, the answer is simple: Food, Conversation, and Community. For most people, the game itself is not really the draw. The truth is, you can watch most professional sports games from home by yourself and get a much better view of the action. The allure is really more about community and making connections with other people. And what do these people do while they are talking, laughing, and having a good time? They’re spending money. They’re buying tickets, buying drinks, and buying food. They’re also being bombarded with advertisements from folks outside the industry.
Action 1: Let’s change the demographics of the pool industry. We are currently mostly men, mostly single, and I would argue, mostly broke. Wow, that doesn’t sound like an appealing demographic for most marketing executives. We need more women in the game. We need more kids in the game. We need to build up a bigger fan base and make pool fun and entertaining for the masses. How do we do that? Maybe we need our own marketing campaign. How about “One reaching One?” If each of us sought out just one new person and got them involved in the game, we would immediately double the entire industry population. Wow, that was easy! We also should do more to promote league play. It’s a great way to get more people in the door. We could also actively pursue local companies and ask them to form and sponsor a pool league team as one of their company’s team building activities. This could introduce the game to a whole new set of people, and bring in deeper pockets.
Observation 2: A lot of major sports figures appear to be somewhat accessible to the fans. The fans feel a connection. Is this true of most top echelon pool players? Let’s take a quick look at professional baseball and how it connects to fans. Each professional baseball team has at least two or three ‘farm’ teams that are used to develop talent and get the players ready for the ‘big time.’ It may be an unintended consequence of this system, but the farm teams allow players to get closer to the fans. Most farm team games feel more like high school or college games – very energetic and the fans can get close. There’s an opportunity for the players to make a connection with the ‘common folk’. The players also often attend local charity events and occasionally interact directly with the fans. What could we learn from this?
Action 2: Professional pool players need to be more accessible to the fans. Be friendly, be open, in simple terms, become an ambassador for the sport. If you are a pro, you can take action locally, join a league, do pro bono work, work with up and coming talented kids, do community outreach, work with disadvantaged kids and be a big brother or big sister, or just simply promote league play. Here’s the rub: You can’t fake it. To be an ambassador, you must really love the game AND genuinely want to promote the game and help others. As a pro, you are in a special place and have an opportunity to mentor others and greatly expand the industry.
Observation 3: Playing pocket billiards requires a lot of skill, maybe too much. Compare billiards with bowling. After your first throw in bowling, there are only a handful of possible states that the pins can be in. With billiards, the possibilities and the complexities are quite literally limitless. Is it possible to simplify pool so that the barrier to entry for the unskilled player is less imposing? Consider the following baseball analogy: hitting and playing baseball requires a lot of skill, too much skill in fact for many to play. How do you simplify baseball to make it more accessible to the masses? Simple. You make the ball bigger, you slow down the pitching, and you don’t allow players to steal bases. Next, you change the name to “Softball.” Is there a similar analog for pool?
Action 3: Make the game easier for beginners. NO, I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT HANDICAPS! Why not provide beginner tables which massive pockets? I know, I know, I can hear your screams from here. I am not a fan of big pocket tables either, but I must admit that I’ve seen more than a few newbie’s give up on the game just because the base skill level required to pocket balls or make a couple balls in a row is too high. Why not lower the bar, widen up the pockets and open up the sport to a much bigger audience, then allow them to move up the skill ladder as they get accustomed to the new sport? They can always advance to regulation tables later on once they develop their basic skills. On the other hand, they may just stay on the ‘easy’ tables while chatting with their friends, having a drink, enjoying a bite to eat, and all the while spending money at your establishment.
In order to expand the industry, we need to help build a community. Most people are looking for connections and a place to belong. Instead of opting to go to Cheers where everybody knows your name, why not visit the local pool hall? We need to expand and diversify our demographics. We need to help others “join the club.” This will change our demographics and attract more interest from outside investors and advertisers. Well, that’s my two cents. Be sure to check out the rest of the June 2010 edition of PoolSynergy for other great articles over at Untold Stories: Billiards History.