In 1986, when Werner Bayer made his grand attempt to professionalize the 3-cushion sport, I cheered him on. Ceulemans was going to play for good sums of money, after all those years of winning kitschy trophies and bouquets of flowers. The sport’s best would no longer compete against each other in smoky cellars. Instead, fancy hotels would act as venues, and TV-cameras would be present. If you saw a blue cloth, that meant professionals were playing. Players would wear classy outfits, and their behavior would be exemplary. No drinking or smoking during matches. There would be a handshake, and a press conference after the match. Three-cushion was not for gamblers and hustlers. It was a gentleman’s sport. I loved what Bayer was trying to do, not realizing at that time that he had set the bar too high.
The UMB felt threatened by the BWA. They had lost their monopoly, they felt beheaded: the best players in the world had joined the newcomer league. In the years following, the amateur organization fought back. Players and even referees were suspended, fines were imposed, costly legal battles dragged on and on. In 2003 the BWA collapsed because it had depleted its funds. The much older, larger, richer and deeply rooted UMB had won the war.
I hated the UMB in those years. In my view, they were dinosaurs. Old, totally amateur and rigidly conservative, not interested in the future of the sport and the careers of the top players, but focused on their individual privileges and positions of power.
Looking back, I guess I was 75 % right in that analysis. Where’s the 25 %? The BWA was too ambitious, ahead of itself and its time. After the novelty had worn off, interest from TV-channels waned. Finding sponsorship strong enough to support 50.000 D-mark first prizes was difficult. Hosting tournaments in the Stade de Coubertin in Paris and the Kempinsky Hotel in Berlin was extremely costly. The bar was so high, the BWA could not jump it anymore in the nineties, and it gave up in 2003.
The BWA’s World Cup formula was then put to good use by the UMB. It was downscaled, tailored to the market. The Kempinsky hotel was replaced by resorts in Turkey and Egypt, prize money went down and “billiard tourists” playing qualification rounds helped balance the budget. The old formula was more glamorous. But the new one proved to be sustainable.
Here we are, in 2019. A new professional league will start up in Korea, top players will join and get suspended. Do the two situations compare? Is this a case of history repeating itself? Will I again hate the UMB?
The answers to my three questions are: only to a degree, no and no. Leaving the obvious similarity for what it is, here are the crucial differences:
In 1986, the UMB was indeed guilty of being rigid, amateur and conservative. In 2019, the UMB has a track record to be proud of. They have demonstrated the will and the ability to innovate. They have improved their product, created stability and – especially in 2018 – put a lot more money in the player’s pockets.
In 1986, the players who risked conflict with the UMB basically had nothing to lose. They walked into a new world where (hopefully) they could make some money. All they gave up was flowers and a medal. Today, the top players have UMB security and income. It’s a message to youngsters all over the world: “You CAN become a professional billiard player, if you are good enough. What you need is a 1.600 average or better, black pants, a white shirt and a strong character. “ The UMB, flaws and all, is the home of billiards, and we need that roof over our heads.
Sponsors come and go. A major Korean business may be fascinated by billiards today, but maybe it’s just that one vice-president. If he’s replaced, they may want to start sponsoring baseball instead. What are you going to do? Take Samsung to court? Good luck.
I have to say, if we end up with two professional circuits again, two world ranking lists, Caudron or Jaspers who can never again become Belgian or Dutch champion, or win another World Cup, let alone be World Champion… It would break my heart.