At first blush, the recently announced Atlantic Challenge Cup probably looks like a nice little transatlantic tournament between young players from the United States and Europe; a "friendly," of sorts, to give youngsters an opportunity to compete in an international event.
The Billiard Congress of America (BCA) and the European Pocket Billiard Federation (EPBF) collaborated on the idea of a junior tournament that would mimic the highly successful Mosconi Cup. The inaugural Atlantic Challenge Cup will take place in Rankweil, Austria, in July, with the event then alternating every year between a site in the U.S. and a site in Europe.
The Challenge Cup will feature four boys and two girls under the age of 20, competing in a variety of matchessingles, doubles, team, etc. Obviously, the primary selling point during the tournament will be national pride, but the value of the Challenge Cup goes far beyond the final match count.
Cliche as it sounds, the future of any sport is in the development of youth participants. Golf, soccer, tennis and even bowling have recognized the importance of young participants, as well as the challenges in capturing - and holding - the attention of today's youth. And each sport has poured valuable resources into youth programs.
Naturally, youth programs aren't cheap to launch. The development process - which usually requires elaborate youth initiatives, clinics, tournaments, etc. - takes plenty of time and money. And the return can take years.
Anyone even remotely connected to the competitive billiard world knows that the billiard industry in the U.S. doesn't possess the war chest that many of the bigger sports do. Many foreign countries - including some of the member countries of the EPBF - have government-funded youth programs, but even those budgets are relatively small. Asia, on the other hand, has plenty of funding and opportunity for its young players. The results are evident in Asia's dominance at all levels in recent years.
No, if pool in the U.S. is going to rebuild through a youth movement, it is going to have to do so on a shoestring budget.
Which brings me back to the Atlantic Challenge Cup and its big-picture importance to the pool world.
I have stated before that I love the concept of a true Team USA, funded by the industry. The need for development of players for international play, beyond the annual Mosconi Cup, is becoming more evident with every international event. World-beater Shane Van Boening aside, players from the U.S. rarely finish in the top 10 any longer. And the dearth of a professional tour in the U.S. has made the international events even more meaningful.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a yearlong Team USA program? I'm not advocating millions of dollars to fund coaches, players, facilities, training and all. I'm talking about a half-dozen players being paid a small stipend, assembling five or six times a year for structured training, and having their tabs footed to attend the biggest international tournaments. It's all about developing something that others might aspire to.
That's also where the Junior Team USA idea becomes equally important. The juniors will now have something to aspire to as well.
For a model that works, look no further than what Team USA captain Mark Wilson has done at Lindenwood University near St. Louis. Kids aspire to that program. They can play pool and gain an education.
Clearly, the BCA doesn't have the wherewithal to drive a national youth program. But setting up a structured system as small as Team USA can have a tremendous trickle-down effect. If pro players aspire to Team USA, doesn't that trickle down to the youth? If youth players aspire to Junior Team USA, don't more youngsters want to become better players?
It's all about opportunities. If the industry can generate meaningful opportunies, players have something to play for.
All of a sudden, players will be looking for those opportunites. That brings America's long-forgotten billiard rooms back into the picture. Qualifiers for youth tournaments could become meaningful again. And kids who want to win those tournaments will be looking for ways to improve their game. Doesn't that bring instruction and coaching back into play?
Players used to aspire to the Pro Billiards Tour and the Women's Professional Billiard Association Classic Tour. With pro tours in the U.S. all but extinct, where are the opportunities? What is there to play for?
Since the industry doesn't have the money to truly develop from the bottom up, what about a top-down approach?
I'd love to see Junior Team USA become something that players would give their eye teeth to be part of. And I'd like to see it be more than a one-tournament-a-year program. The selection process alone could involve team trials and qualification events.
A little out there? Sure, but no one will argue that pool needs to develop players. And without a big budget, it's time we got creative.