It is a valuable old friend of billiards: cloth manufacturer Iwan Simonis (since 1680). The sport owes a lot to that distinguished firm, as also Simonis owes a lot to our sport.
Everything flows, there is always change: “Panta rhei”, even in the world of billiards. Like Simonis, you can be so firmly rooted in history and then suddenly wonder what your future will be like. A few years ago, Greek entrepreneur Pavlos Zachariadis had the foresight and courage to invest money in the development of synthetic billiard cloth. He called it “Royal Pro”, and started selling it all over Europe, Asia and in North and South America. The quality of the product kept improving: the second generation was better than the first, the current sixth is better than the fifth was.
The main characteristics of the synthetic cloth: it is cheaper, more durable, rolls faster, does not absorb moisture and therefore does not require as much heating, which is a significant cost-saver. It basically does everything that wool-based cloth does, as well or better, at a lower initial cost and with a lower maintenance cost. On the downside: it’s not as pretty. Wear and tear are more visible, the RP cloth tends to look older than it actually is.
When the first generation of Royal Pro came out, many players raised their eyebrows. Now, a couple of years later, the playing characteristics of RP are rather obvious to everybody. All the top players have experienced it, and have produced wonderful averages on it. I have done some research, comparing ten Dutch Grand Prix tournaments, five played on RP, five played on Simonis cloth, with an almost identical field of players. The RP tournaments averaged about 1,5 % higher for the last 32 players. That’s not scientific evidence of anything: other factors may have played a part. One room tends to produce slightly better averages than another. Still, a positive difference of 1,5 % should be a strong indication that the synthetic cloth is at least as good as the wool.
Iwan Simonis is a big company, and it is also a big sponsor of billiards. They are in no way the “bad guy” in this story: Simonis has always given back to the sport. They’ve had a semi-monopoly for decades, and (who could blame them?) have tried to protect their market using contracts with national Federations. I am not privy to the details of every contract with every national Federation in Europe, but I do know how it works in SOME countries. Simonis financially supports a national Federation with an X amount of money, and in return, that Federation guarantees that all national championships in their country, MUST be played on Simonis cloth. In some countries, that obligation even extends to league play. And that is where we come to an important distinction.
A national Federation can sign a contract like that, it is entitled to. Once it does and accepts money from Simonis, it should keep its end of the bargain and enforce that Simonis cloth is used in national championships. The situation in league play is more complicated. A third party – the room owner – enters the equation and finds himself under obligations that he has not signed up for. A federation and a cloth company have made a deal, and the room owner is paying part of the money to make that deal work. That does not sound fair, and it isn’t. If you are a billiard room owner, you will always have a critical eye on your annual expenses (it’s hard enough to keep a room profitable). So, saving money on both your electric bill AND your periodic new cloths is a godsend. Inevitably, some room owners will switch from Simonis to RP and come into conflict with their national Federation, as has recently happened in Belgium.
Federations will say: “We have a duty to make sure all championships (and in some countries, league matches) are played with billiard materials of approved quality, and we are the only ones who can give that approval.” And they make the use of billiard balls from Brand X and billiard cloth from Brand Y mandatory. No surprise, these are the brands that the federations receive sponsorship money from. Approving products to guarantee quality, that’s okay. But disallowing other products to protect sponsorship deals, that’s not okay. The commercial billiards market, like the game, should have a level playing field.
Lawyers, possibly on a European level, will have to decide if these contracts between Simonis and national Federations do not conflict with anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws that apply in all EU countries. But well before the generals are done, the foot soldiers will have decided the outcome of this battle. A cheaper product that is as good as a more expensive one, will find its way onto the market. You can’t stop that with contracts and regulations. At the end of the day, the Federation needs the room owners more than the room owners need the Federation. Synthetic cloth is here to stay, that is a certainty. Personally, I would be amazed if wool-based cloth is even produced 20 years from now. Simonis, our long-time friends in billiards, will have to change, adapt, show flexibility, re-invent themselves using their high-quality image and vast distribution network. They certainly don’t want to become the next TDK, once mighty market leader in cassette tapes. The Federations will also have to wake up and smell the coffee. Imposing sanctions on teams or rooms is not a way out of this problem; it’s futile, counterproductive and signals a desire to be living in the past. What we need most right now, from the pillars of our billiard industry and our national Federations, is leadership that looks forward.