Prime time and high times
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