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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
 
May: It’s A Game, Sport
May 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 2001]

A few months ago, Sports Illustrated, in a new feature called, “Sport? Not a Sport,” took on pool, asking nine pro athletes for their opinion. The “Nots” won, 5-4, If I remember correctly, but that’s not overly important. What’s more significant is that SI didn’t have to take a poll. The debate over pool’s status was firmly resolved — and by lawyers, although not in a court case — 30 years ago.

It’s this simple: If pool were a sport, Steve Mizerak would never have been allowed to do his Lite Beer commercials. FCC [Federal Communications Commission] regulations expressly forbid any active athlete from endorsing any form of alcoholic product. That’s why Miz was the only active participant out of all the Lite Beer All Stars.

So, how did the decision get made to allow Mizerak into the immortal “Tastes Great! Less Filling!” campaign? All advertising copy, especially that slated for network television, must get legal approval before the ad or commercial is even produced. This approval is forthcoming from lawyers who specialize in advertising law, a relatively rare specialty. In making their decisions, they’re guided by broadcast regulations, precedents established by prior cases if there were any, and common sense.

However, there is no commission — or individual, for that matter — anywhere in the universe who is empowered to declare which activities shall be designated sports and which shall not. Olympic status isn’t much help either, not when they’re considering idiocies such as contact bridge and ballroom dancing, and besides aren’t they called the Olympic Games in the first place?

No, the only barrier dividing sports and games is the invisible Maginot Line known as perceptions. No law requires bookstores to sell books on the cue games in their “Games” section rather than in “Sports,” and no one has brainwashed America into looking on pool and billiards as mere pastimes. It’s simply the way they’re perceived. In Mizerak’s case, someone clearly made the decision that he was eligible as an endorser, even though he was still active in his endeavor, because pool is no sport and Mizerak was no athlete. That may not have been the precise wording, but a decision very much like that had to have been made or those particularly Lite Beer spots would never have seen the light of day.

As is the case with most perceptions, pool has been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In their respective primes, Greenleaf and Hoppe shared the sports pages right alongside Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden and all the other mega-stars — but that was 80 years ago. The last semi-regular major media coverage granted to the cue games was in the early ’40s, when even the prestigious New York Times had a writer assigned to billiards.

What’s happened since? First came an annoyance known as World War II. While it ironically furnished the most fertile hustlers’ food chain in the history of pool (near the Norlfolk, Va., Naval base), it also ushered in one of the pool industry’s worst slumps ever. Servicemen lucky enough to come home from the war weren’t interested in the trivialities of their youth anymore; they had learned firsthand that life is very short and wanted to get on with their lives quickly in the form of jobs, families and houses, not pool playing. The cue games languished between the late ’40s and the early ’60s; in several of the years that Willie Mosconi claimed the world’s pool championship, there weren’t even any tournaments.

Somehow surviving that slump, the game then served ably as its own worst enemy. The modest boom that followed the great film “The Hustler” lasted only a few years. Not long after that, the tournament that should have been the game’s most prestigious openly discriminated against African American player Cisero Murphy. A year or two later, The New York Times learned that most of the tournament board had been “bought” in an effort to fix multiple games and declined to cover the event again.

Then there is the problem that we have no stars in the eyes of the masses. When Mosconi used to slaughter Minnesota Fats annually on television, their ratings were always at least double those of any other pool telecast, but those men are gone and their rivalry longer-gone than that. Today, ESPN has stated for the record that they believe their pool audience will tune in to see the game played no matter who’s playing it. The women, who have managed to keep their tour alive while the men could not, are still searching for sponsors; the men are nowhere, and likely to remain so. If Barry Hearn does come over here and put on a tournament or two that pay along the lines of his snooker meets in Europe, that’ll be nice for the few players who share in the riches, but it won’t do anything for pool. Perceptions don’t change because of the size of the purse. The World Series of Poker pays its winner $1,000,000; quick, name me three players.

For all the outcry over Jeanette Lee’s aggressive if not relentless self-promotion, the true significance is that she’s the only one who understands that that’s what has to be done. On the male side, Earl Strickland, notwithstanding all the negatives I’ve written about him, seems to have a much firmer grasp on the same concept than many of his peers. Misguided, sure, but at least he recognizes that you cannot court acclaim merely for running the balls.

Anyone with a solution is firmly encouraged to put that solution into play now. I don’t see this getting better anytime soon.

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