In Britain, Tuesday May 8 will be no ordinary day. In factories and offices there will be no-shows aplenty, and among those who do make it in, there will be a reprehensibly low level of concentration on the task at hand. Firings, however, are unlikely to be widespread because management, too, will have been up until the wee hours of that morning, watching the world championship finals...of snooker.
The final match is the climax of a 17-day elimination tournament that last year won 70% of the British television viewing audience. The BBC deploys more technicians for the tournament than for any other annual sporting event, and this year will put 125 hours on the air. The finals attract a larger viewing audience than Wimbledon or the British Open and more betting than on either of those classics; more betting, even, than on Britain's equivalent of the Super Bowl—soccer's Cup Final. Indeed, soccer, in its heartland, has for some time had to concede the TV lead to a game that less than a decade ago had the mass appeal of mixed volleyball. That is, until—and you can date it precisely—April 17-24, 1978, a week that BBC producer Nick Hunter still recalls with a glow.
That was when, delighted with what seemed to be unexpectedly good viewing figures for the first week of the championship, Hunter ordered champagne for a crew celebration. The gesture turned out to be a touch premature; as the tournament went on, the audience simply kept growing.
Four years later the game's popularity was still outstripping expectations. That was when the BBC offered free seats at the finals as a prize for a competition in which viewers had to select the best three of 10 difficult shots selected by experts. The network hoped for 10,000 entries. What it got, in two days, was more than 250,000, and in the city of Sheffield, where the world championships are held, the embattled post office had to call in the girl guides and boy scouts to help sort it all out.
And now, unbelievable as it may seem, this snooker revolution has made a lanky, ginger-haired 26-year-old named Steve Davis into possibly the biggest name in British sport. He is the reigning world snooker champion.
In March at Derby in the English Midlands, Davis was warming up by carving his way through to the final of the Yamaha Organs Trophy tournament, one of the last big matches before this year's worlds. In Derby's assembly rooms the halls were alive with the sound of Muzak and the lobby gaudy with the scarlet betting booths of Coral's, the London bookies, but an ordered formality ruled at the snooker table. At the start of each match, a solemn referee, in tux and white gloves ("I go through 50 pairs a year at $11 a pair," said this one, Len Ganley), entered, followed by the players. The audience clapped with symphony-hall discretion at just the right moments. There was, however, a special quickening in the room at the appearance of the most elegant of the players, who, on the posted form sheets in Coral's booths, was quoted as the 2-to-5 favorite.
It was Davis, of course. He was wearing a mohair suit that may well have cost $1,200. The jacket, not worn during play, will outlast six pairs of pants and three vests. And it, like Davis' formal shirts, has to be tailored with special care. Because he has been playing the game since he was two, Davis' left, or non-cue, arm is two inches longer than his right. In play he takes the stance of a praying mantis as he folds his 6'2" frame over the table, the long torso flexed straight from the hips, one elbow jutting back. With his cue he administers, almost without thought, it seems, both tender kisses that just tip the ball into the pockets and abrupt, violent slap shots that echo through the hall. At times, when the balls lie awkwardly, he stalks the table slowly, bends to sight a shot, straightens up again, takes chalk from his vest pocket, contemplates. He may do this three or four times, his face without emotion, as if he were in a waking dream. He has plenty to dream about. This year he will earn approximately $1.05 million.
The Derby tournament was Davis' first in almost two months. Since his previous appearance he had flown to Hong Kong—via Cathay Pacific Airways, with whom he has a contract, sipping on the way, possibly, a little cognac by Camus, with whom he has a contract, en route to help plan this summer's Hong Kong Masters, in which he is contracted to play. All of which should give him some good copy for his column in Fleet Street's Daily Star newspaper—with which he has a contract.
But the jaunt was almost out of character. More often than not, Davis can be found displaying his virtuosity in front of the TV cameras. Indeed, he doesn't feel that he's really playing snooker unless the cameras are there. "It's not the fan adulation," he says, "it's the thought of the TV staring in, so close, knowing everything. You are naked, more naked than in other sports. I know full well I don't get the same feeling in a match that doesn't have TV coverage."
The BBC, a non-commercial network, has never thought it necessary to make a survey of just why televised snooker has captured the hearts of British viewers. None of that tacky nosiness that here in the U.S. yields fanciful tidbits such as this—that 28.1% of the households with incomes between $17,050 and $21,010 watch Dynasty because of its pertinent social comment. So in order to find out what it is about snooker that has so gripped the British, it seemed a good idea to leave the assembly rooms at Derby and watch the action on TV in a pub across the street.