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Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.


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Best of Fels
 
July: The Numbers Crunch
July 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from March 1999]

Which survey did you read? According to various sources, anywhere from 37 million to 40 million-plus Americans play pool at least once a year. Whichever figure you prefer, what’s indisputable about that figure is this:

(a) It’s only a statistical projection, not a head count.

(b) If (a) is untrue, then I want to know who and where the hell all those people are, so we can start a database on them. And so does the entire industry.

(c) I’d like to play each of those millions one rack of dollar 9-ball, win (preferably on the snap) and quit.

(d) I wouldn’t like it much if each of them stepped on my toe.

Just as Jerusalem has its Wailing Wall and poker players have their crying towel (“The winners make jokes, while the losers cry, ‘Play on!’”), what professional pool has is “40 million people playin’ this game; how come I can’t make a livin’?”

It’s a fair question, and here’s a fair attempt at an answer: The two parts of that sentence have virtually nothing to do with one another. Start with point (a) above. And then, even if you give that statistical projection its due, there are a whole lot of things Americans do that they don’t much like to watch. Beyond that, all those millions aren’t paying very much attention to you, another reason their sheer numbers don’t figure to impact on what you can take away from all this.

“Okay,” you say, “but what about the 4 million-plus who play at least twice a month? Isn’t that a potential market for us?”

Not really. First of all, what’s twice a month, relative to pool? How many serious players of anything, except maybe golf, do you know who only play once every other week? Even more important — and this seems to be something no one wants to hear — pool, in the eyes of big business, is small potatoes. For once, the game’s stigma can’t be blamed; it has much more do to with the mass perception of pool as a game rather than a sport. Those in the mass audience who think about pool at all recall only an occasional “pastime” from their youth: our books are invariably sold in the Games section of bookstores; many commercial rooms have, or had, the word “Recreation” in their formal names. Until we start doing a better job of educating the masses, that perception isn’t likely to change.

If you could dangle the eight-digit figure of your choice in front of potential corporate sponsors and say, “This is the audience we can deliver,” you’d be Fat City right now. Even almighty golf can barely deliver half that many — but those are extremely loyal viewers and, even better in sponsors’ eyes, they are well-monied. It’s not your fault, or the game’s that you don’t have those kinds of numbers to bandy about; it’s just the way things are. Unfortunately, potential sponsors are interested in very little else. Love of the game doesn’t count for beans.

“How come,” you respond reasonably, “you aren’t nearly as glib with a solution as you are in stating the problem?”

I can give you the end, but not necessarily the means. If you expect your game, and its rewards, to advance, there’s really only one route: you simply must do what golf, tennis and even bowling have all done, specifically, increase the percentage of frequent-to-serious participation. When I was good at tennis, back in the Pleistocene Era, the mass perception of that sport was that it was strictly for what were then called “sissies” and spoiled country club kids. When tennis finally took off in the following decade, it had a great deal to do with readily accessible instruction, even on television itself. Once you get somebody to say, “Hey, there’s more to this game than I thought,” it’s no trick to get them to watch that sport when they’re not playing.

Until we find a way to parallel tennis’ kind of success, you might look heavenward in gratitude for the core circle you do have. No, they’re not enough to make hundreds of you wealthy, as golf and tennis do; still, tournaments pay decent prizes, and although you cannot logically anticipate becoming dominant in today’s game, a lucky few, between winnings and sponsorships, are able to eke out a respectable living. That loyal audience readily and regularly forgives you for acting like louts when you’re left unaccountable, for utterly failing to make yourselves interesting or give something back to the game in any way except your ability to run the balls. You’re indescribably lucky to have them.

So, who promised you things would be any better? With very rare exception, you have not burdened yourselves with holding down a job or running a business. You didn’t hone your skills in college, where you might have built something to fall back on if this didn’t pan out. All too often, you lapse into living proof of the knocks against you.

It’s pointless to compare your state to the success of snooker in the U.K. That is entirely a different game, marketed to an entirely different culture. It’s equally pointless to rail against any gender issues.

And that’s why those 40 million, or however many million, if they do indeed exist, can’t help make you rich. Is there any special reason they should? You’ve gone well out of your way to have hardly anything in common with them.

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