Prime time and high times

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A re­cent made-for-TV film from the BBC: The Rack Pack. A whim­si­cal pro­duc­tion, it charts the phe­nom­e­nal rise of the Snooker World Cham­pi­onship from the smoke-fogged snooker dens of the 1970s to its 1985 peak when one Den­nis Tay­lor beat Steve Davis with the last ball of the match. With that win­ning pot of the fi­nal black (missed, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, by Davis), Tay­lor, a ge­nial Ul­ster­man with com­edy glasses and a win­ning line in stand-up ban­ter, be­came world cham­pion be­fore a UK TV au­di­ence of 18.5 mil­lion peo­ple – me in­cluded.

This mag­i­cal piece of sport­ing theatre was played out over the Sun­day evening of 28 April 1985. On it ground, frame af­ter close-fought frame, into the wee small hours – way past ‘lights out’ on a school night, but too com­pelling a drama to be dis­missed.

Thanks to colour tele­vi­sion and the back­ing of a free-to-air broad­caster (not to men­tion the vi­sion of an en­tre­pre­neur­ial pro­moter, Barry Hearn), snooker, a most un­likely ‘old man’s sport’, had be­come mas­sive box of­fice; its stars – Alex ‘Hur­ri­cane’ Hig­gins, Jimmy ‘Whirl­wind’ White, Cliff Thor­burn aka ‘The Grinder’ – house­hold names, one and all. And Sh­effield’s Cru­cible Theatre had be­come a field of dreams men­tioned, im­prob­a­bly, in the same breath as Wem­b­ley.

It seemed im­pos­si­ble that snooker could fade from pub­lic af­fec­tion, so se­cure was its place on TV sched­ules and so strong its hold on pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. Yet it did – de­spite grow­ing new he­roes to re­place the orig­i­nals and ex­pand­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally to reach a wider au­di­ence. Elite snooker re­mains a big draw: re­cent UK TV au­di­ences for the world cham­pi­onship fi­nal have hov­ered around 6 mil­lion, with global eye­balls top­ping 200m by some es­ti­mates. Like any other sport, how­ever, it must fight to com­mand at­ten­tion when once it had the telly equiv­a­lent of the Mi­das touch.

It was with this in mind that we posed a ques­tion to a gath­er­ing of the sport’s movers and shak­ers: “Has For­mula 1 peaked?” (see page 38). We were keen to garner opin­ion as to whether anec­do­tal ev­i­dence of dwin­dling ticket sales at cer­tain venues and the demise of some free-to-air broad­casts were suf­fi­ciently off­set by lu­cra­tive ex­pan­sion into coun­tries such as Azer­bai­jan and the rise of a wun­derkind such as Max Ver­stap­pen.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff spoke con­fi­dently of F1’s abil­ity to grow, adapt and reach new au­di­ences. But Zak Brown, a man with his fin­ger pressed firmly to the sport’s throb­bing com­mer­cial pulse, coun­selled against com­pla­cency: “The world has changed,” he says, “but For­mula 1 hasn’t changed as much as the world has… we have to adapt For­mula 1 to fit the world.”

Now there’s a laud­able am­bi­tion: tai­lor­ing prod­uct to fan. But how to do it? Ha­los to ap­pease the safety lobby? Fat­ter Pirellis and more down­force to re­duce lap times? Or a cost-capped for­mula em­pha­sis­ing driver skill over tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity? Each ar­gu­ment has merit; some will pre­vail as oth­ers are for­got­ten. But there is one cer­tainty: F1’s suc­cess can never be taken for granted.

Fol­low An­thony on Twit­ter: @Rowl­in­son_F1

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