Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pool Synergy 8: Mika, Tiger and Nick Varner

Mika Immonen's prize earnings last year totaled $238,320 — admittedly a pretty good haul for pool. That made The Iceman pool's top money winner for 2009. Also that year another athlete by the name of Tiger Woods won $10.5 million. Actually, the precise figure was $10,508,163. Getting out my calculator, I find that golf's top player won 44 times more than pool's top player. And of course this doesn't figure in all the money Tiger made from his product endorsements. If you add that cash, the gap would be much wider.

The money difference between golf's No. 1 and pool's No. 1 may not be all that shocking given what we all know about Tiger Woods. He is, after all, the most well-paid sports figure on the planet. But if one continues looking down the PGA's money list — and I'm talking about very far down —you come to a man named  Jose Maria Olazabal. Olazabel is ranked 185th on the golf tour. Given his standing, it's likely that many of you may never have heard of Mr. Olazabel.  But even this no-name golfer, a man ranked a measly 185th — even this guy made away with more money than our No. 1.

Similar comparisons can be made with tennis players, poker players — hell, even bowlers sometimes make more money than pool players. This, in a word, is pathetic. Something definitely is not right with our sport.  But is this lack of money a symptom of pool's malaise or a cause? And what can be done to fix it?

Welcome back to Pool Synergy, the monthly online forum on our sport's most pressing questions.  This month's topic: "How to Fix Pool." We have fine contributions for our latest edition from John Biddle, Mike Fieldhammer, Samm Diep, p00lriah, Gail Glazebrook, Mark Finkelstein, Pool is a Journey blogger Melinda, Michael Reddick, and the snarky Pool Cue News & Review guy. As I'm this month's host, I've also created a separate page summarizing all the great essays and showing where you can find links to them.

Dancing With The Stars?
The ideas for fixing pool have been flooding in ever since I announced this month's topic. Folks have suggested everything from Dancing With The Stars TV programming to a new video game. I've also interviewed a few pool experts, including my friend Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna, the author of several popular instructional books. I'll continue to post up all those suggestions in the days to come. But for today's essay, I turn to none other than Nick Varner, the eight-time world champion and Hall of Fame inductee. Nick is one of the most easy going guys you're likely to meet. But you can sense the frustration just below the surface when you ask him about the state of American pocket billiards.

The Almighty Dollar
"Our economy is driven by the almighty dollar, whether you like it or not. You think anybody would be watching Tiger Woods if he was playing in the local golf club for $1,500? No way."  Nick, a Kentucky resident, speaks with a syrupy drawl. He's been watching pool and playing it for years. And as the owner of his cue company, he has a stake in getting our sport back on track.

"Folks don't see a future for this game, except from a hobby standpoint," he says. "There's no way to make living. The best players in the world, they're struggling — and it's a shame. ... So there's no reason for a young kid to aspire to become the best in the world. Nothing is going to change the image of the sport, except big prize money."

And, so what's the key to bringing more money to the sport? Varner has a few suggestions. First, obviously, a deep-pocketed promoter always helps. But Varner also suggests, perhaps somewhat controversially, that fans should have an ability to gamble on matches. "If you could bet on pool matches, I think that would be phenomenal," he says. "That would create a lot of interest. People that knock gambling need to take a strong look at poker."

Another interesting idea from Varner, and one that I haven't heard discussed much, is for more team play — but with teams from distinct geographical areas. Imagine a domestic tour, but with groups of players representing individual American cities or states. In the Mosconi Cup, it's the U.S. versus England. With Varner's idea, it would be Texas versus New York, or Los Angeles versus Cleveland.

Varner calls the Mosconi Cup one of pool's most exciting events. He has participated both as a player and as the U.S. team captain.  "That's what we need," he said. "To really make this game (successful) we need to figure out how it could be economically feasible to have teams like in the NBA or the NFL. We could have state teams. This creates a geographic fan base. Right now there isn't a whole lot of team stuff going on. But with a Georgia team versus Florida, say, that automatically hits us like a college sport. This (attracts) the sports fan."

Nick, a two-time national colleagiate champion,  says more support from universities also could help. After all, it was his participation in tournaments sponsored by the Association of College Unions International that started Varner on his tournament career.  He said the ACUI tournaments have been around since 1940s, but in recent years universities seem to have moved away from pool. "A lot of universities are going a little different way these days," he explains. "The emphasis back before was on lifetime sports — bowling and billiards, things you can participate in for all your years. But now health fitness is getting a lot bigger. A lot of universities have made their game rooms a lot smaller."

So, these are Varner's ideas in a nutshell:

1. Thumbs up to organized gambling on pool
2. Regional teams
3. Support at the university level

Check back here in the coming days for Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna's suggestions, as well as suggestions from other pool fans. Also don't miss the other Pool Synergy submissions this month. Have your own ideas? Feel free to comment here, or at the Pool & Billiard History Facebook page.

-- R.A. Dyer


Samm said...

Well written, Jake. Great work hosting this month!

John Biddle said...

I'm with Nick on the team idea. The Mosconi cup generated more fan involvement and excitement, along with player emotions, than anything I've seen in pool in recent memory. I don't know the details, but something which can capture that emotion and involvement and sense of belonging would bring pool back in a hurry.

Gambling by fans, ok; gambling by players, no way. Pool has a big enough problem with it's seedy reputation as it is.

Detroit Johnny said...

Just for the record Jose Maria Olazabal is by no means a "no name golfer". He has won two major titles in his career both at the Masters. He has won tournaments world wide. Your point, however, is still valid.