The reason billiards has remained relevant in the eyes of avid fans and a lucrative livelihood for its players might be what causes the game to fall into harder times.
Since the turn of the century, the sport, once dominated by Americans, has enjoyed a global reach that includes the Philippines, East Asia, and Europe.
But with the world plunged in a pandemic, hundreds of international flights grounded and no timetable yet for a vaccine, big-money tournaments that banked on booking the planet’s top players could put the game in dire straits.
“If you go in these tournaments, there are 30, 40 players from different countries. That’s impossible right now. There’s no way these tournaments are going to get quality fields anymore,” said Ted Lerner, media officer of the World Pool-Billiard Association, the sport’s world governing body.
Former world No. 1 Mika Immonen said: “A majority of our income is from tournaments. Yeah, we’re pretty much out of job for the moment.”
The domestic local billiards scene isn’t as vibrant as it was in the early 2000s when high-quality competitions were readily available left and right.
As sponsorship money dried up, elite Filipino players packed their bags and regularly looked at the overseas circuit for a substantial paycheck.
Efren “Bata” Reyes, Francisco “Django” Bustamante, Dennis Orcollo and many other superstars have been playing regularly in the US.
Lerner said he isn’t concerned with the hyperlocalized game returning, because billiards “sort of lends itself to social distancing.”
“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of pool happening in an unofficial way. It all depends on the enforcement (of rules),” he said.
That could mean no handshaking and a strict compliance with sanitizing the balls, the table, and even an entire venue, if that’s what’s called for.
Based on the current community quarantine rules, playing billiards in the Philippines remains prohibited as of May 28
Robert Mananquil, secretary-general of the Billiards and Snookers Congress of the Philippines, the national governing body of the sport, said, “the opening of local billiard halls would depend on local government unit guidelines under GCQ [General Community Quarantine], because the presence of spectators falls under mass gathering.”
Difficult times ahead
What pool players expect to earn locally is a fraction of the 5-digit dollar figures they could pocket when they're out abroad.
Worse, the regions flush with billiards cash — China, the United States and Europe — have been the hardest hit by the virus.
Because of the COVID-19 threat, organizers ditched the World 10-Ball Championship (March), the US Open (April), and the WPA Players Championship (April) that were all supposed to be held in Las Vegas.
“It was never a good time to be a pool player, but there were chances to make money,” Lerner said. “Now it’s going to be difficult.”
Even if air travel opens up and players are willing to take risks, they’d have to go through a rigmarole of immigration and health checks just to get to their destination.
Imagine joining a 5-day tournament prefaced by a 2-week quarantine, then on the way back to the Philippines players have to be quarantined again. The prize money on offer may not be worth the inconvenience.
“There are too many hurdles for the game to prosper. I don’t see how promoters are going to be able to put up proper events until there’s a vaccine or anything like that,” Lerner said.
“I think the international game for Filipino players is going to be really hurting.”
Immonen, who counted at least 12 trips for competition last year, said the transition into a new normal would have to be thought out.
“We have to be optimistic and careful at the same time. I don’t wanna be complacent where you think you can travel risk free. We’ll see,” said Immonen, who was born in Finland but currently resides in the US.
“It depends on the promoters and the countries how they’re opening up. I think it’s going to be a very slow process, but this year, I don’t know. International tournaments, I have a hard time seeing.” — With a report from Dennis Gasgonia, ABS-CBN News
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).