Power Snooker: another example of dumbing down?

Thirty-minute snooker matches are not a product of shorter attention spans, but a reminder of sport’s endless evolution.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

It is often observed that we live in an age of shrinking attention spans, and that ours is an increasingly dumbed-down culture, in which immediacy, transience and superficiality have displaced the virtues of patience, depth and deferred gratification. We are reminded of the need to ‘multi-task’ rather than concentrate on one thing at a time. Scientists have been

The internet, mobile phones, the vast proliferation of television stations, iPhones, iPods and iPads: technology is usually cited as both cause and symptom of our low-concentration society. Elsewhere, reality and confessional TV shows such as Big Brother and The Jeremy Kyle Show are deemed to demonstrate how vacuous and ephemeral popular culture has become. People seek fame for its own sake. Celebrity magazines featuring talentless non-entities bestride the news stands. Even the way we listen to music has altered. Classic FM hardly ever broadcasts a symphony or opera in its entirety, while the download has compromised the popularity of the album, and the narratives often contained within. Would Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Dark Side Of The Moon have been made in the era of the single download?

To some, the changing nature of sport is also perceived as a barometer of this cultural shift. There has been much grumbling to this effect from cricket traditionalists, who regard the recent ascendancy of Twenty20 cricket, a truncated version of the sport proper, as a vulgar corruption. And in recent weeks it has been snooker’s turn to be subjected to corresponding disapproval.

Last Sunday saw the opening of the first ‘Power Snooker’ tournament in the UK. Like Twenty20, Power Snooker is a quicker, simpler variant of the original game. Unlike orthodox snooker, in which games can last for days, Power Snooker matches are limited to 30 minutes and the score is determined by points not frames. There are only nine red balls, as opposed to the traditional 15, and competitors have a 20-second limit to make a shot. The affair is a far cry from the hushed world of traditional snooker, in which contestants are attired as if they are going to a posh dinner party. Here, players enter the arena to the sound of thumping music, accompanied by buxom sirens, and throughout the game they are subjected to chants of encouragement or derision from a well-refreshed audience.

‘The crassest, cheapest, tackiest, most godforsakenly awful sporting event in history’, was the verdict of Matthew Syed of The Times (London). ‘Power Snooker is shameless, tasteless and undigested drivel of a kind that makes Loose Women look classy.’ Reaction in the Twittersphere was mixed, but certainly some concurred. ‘Call me old-fashioned but “power” snooker sounds like f**king pinball to me’, wrote one. ‘I refuse to watch Power Snooker. Isn’t Power Snooker just pool?’, tweeted another.

Some contend that the emergence of Power Snooker adds weight to the argument that we are becoming more crass and stupid in general. This claim, however, is refuted by the historical reality that organised sport has been ‘dumbing down’, and becoming more populist, ever since it began.

For instance, I suspect that those who grumble about Twenty20 probably heard their grandfathers grouse about one-day cricket, which was first played at English county level in 1962, before it went international in 1971. They most likely still hear their fathers bemoaning the fact that one-day cricketers play in brightly-coloured ‘pyjamas’. Both one-day cricket and Twenty20 were designed to make the game more accessible and stirring.

Rugby union has been ‘dumbing down’ since the nineteenth century. There were no points awarded for a ‘try’ in Home Nation games until 1890 (hence its name), when placing down the ball behind the whitewash now earned the team one point. To galvanise the game further, the sport’s authorities have engineered point inflation ever since. In 1893 a try’s worth was raised to three points. In 1971 it was increased to four and in 1992 became five. As recently as February 1963 an international rugby union game between Ireland and England ended 0-0. And long before the emergence of Twenty20 and Power Snooker there was rugby sevens, which enjoyed particular popularity in the 1920s.

Football, or soccer, has similarly been in a constant state of evolution with a view to becoming more vulgarised (in the non-pejorative sense of the word). Just before the 1925-26 season, the offside rule in England was changed, reducing the number of defenders who could place an attacker offside from three to two. The sport had become so bogged down with defensive tactics, reducing it, the FA adjudged, to the point of insipid sclerosis. The consequence was that 6,373 goals were scored in the English league in 1925-26, compared to 4,700 the previous season.

Substitutions in English football games were introduced in 1965. FIFA introduced penalty shoot-outs in 1966, which gradually replaced the custom of settling games by having endless replays, or more bizarrely, drawing lots or tossing a coin (as the 1968 European Football Championship semi-final between Italy and the USSR was notoriously decided). Replays in domestic and international competitions are now almost entirely obsolete; by 1994 even the World Cup final was settled by a penalty shoot-out. The back-pass rule was introduced in 1992, prohibiting a goalkeeper from handling the ball when it is passed to him by a team mate. The offside rule has been relaxed further more recently, with a distinction now made between players in an active or passive position.

In the wider scheme of things, I’m not entirely convinced anyway by the theory of a dumbed-down, reduced-concentration generation today. The case is certainly overstated. People made similar complaints when the television remote control became popular in the 1980s. In that decade the fast-forward button on the emergent VHS player was afforded corresponding significance. But did this technology really rewire my generation’s brains, and is the internet permanently maladjusting today’s youths?

Many people are still prepared to engage their brains when they so desire. Sure, I wouldn’t go to a Wagner opera, but in 2007 I did join many others in a Hammersmith cinema to watch the three Lord of the Rings films in succession: that’s over nine hours. There have been similar incidents of movie theatres airing the six Star Wars movies in one go. Indeed, movies are getting longer. The average length of a feature film in the 2000s was 128 minutes; in the 1970s it was 125; in Hollywood’s golden age in the 1950s it was 113. And if children are incapable of reading books, how do we explain the popularity of the door-stopping Harry Potter novels?

Power Snooker is not my cup of tea. Neither is Twenty20 cricket. I loathe cricket in whatever manifestation, no matter what its duration. I’d be happier to see a football game go to a replay rather than be settled by penalties. Sport is often rich in metaphors, but sometimes, as in the case of the nascent Power Snooker, it is a microcosm of nothing whatsoever. Either that or we’ve been dumbing down for a lot longer than we thought.

Patrick West is author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How the Irish Conquered English Soccer published by Liberties Press, 2006. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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