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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
 
February: Billiards and the Media
February 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 2001]


Since Jean Balukas’ brief attempt to compete with the men in the late ’80s, however, the cue games’ only interface with mass media has been on ESPN, and most of that coverage after 1997 went to women, not men, players. Despite endless repeats of taped packaged productions, the occasional unannounced time slot in midday or the wee hours of the morning, and commentary that bordered on amateurishness, pro pool telecasts have consistently generated fairly respectable ratings, and are in fact ESPN’s highest-rated non-primetime show. Since 1997, ratings have ranged from .57 to .64, representing from 445,520 to 487, 508 households, respectively.

So why this near-total media blackout except for ESPN? There are a number of factors, among them the American perception that pool is a game, not a sport. Chess and bridge are games too, of course, and at that they are games requiring absolutely no athletic skill as pool does — but chess and bridge enjoy such prestige that they are taught almost daily in most of this nation’s major newspapers. Pool’s ESPN ratings demonstrate that Americans occasionally enjoy seeing it played well. But they also demonstrably do not care who’s doing the playing.

The last more-or-less regular media coverage enjoyed by the cue games was just about 60 years ago, in the early ’40s. At that point, both pool and billiards had spawned dominant champions — an angle the media always love — who were cult heroes, Willie Mosconi in pool and Willie Hoppe at 3-cushion. Pool had gone from tournament play to a league format to determine its champion; between November 1940 and May 1941, Mosconi won 176 of 224 games in that competition, finishing a whopping 32 games ahead of his nearest rival. As for Hoppe, he merely roared through 10 other greats twice each in the 1940 championship tourney, like water through shampoo, and after that 20-0 performance, trailed off drastically to 16-1 the following year. Even the prestigious New York Times had a billiards writer back then, one Frank Zotch, whose principal duties seemed to be to rave about the two champs and write tournament stories.

The unfortunate dispute known as World War II changed all that. Tournaments during the war years were few and far between. The post-WWII era brought on one of the cue games’ most disastrous slumps. Here and there was a tiny blip on the media radar screen —in 1953, Time magazine primly reported that in a challenge match, “Mr. Mosconi looked like a banker surrounded by characters out of a banker’s nightmare” — but following the 1941 high-water publicity mark, it would be a full 20 years before journalists of national scope would sharpen their pencils to cover pool.

And Zotch, and those who came before and after him at any given time, have had another problem covering the cue games: There is really no formatted way to do it (as there is, for instance, in team sports). While today’s sports stars are up to their lower lips in statistics, pool has nothing similar; billiards is able to rate its players, on a points-per-inning basis, but that stat has no visibility outside billiards’ inner circles. In addition to not sporting any statistics, pool also defies ball-by-ball coverage, which is absolutely stultifying to read.

Pool’s only real attempt at annotation was the system called Accu-Stats, the brainchild of former player Pat Fleming. In order to implement Accu-Stats properly, though, the scorer has to follow every single ball of every single match, a daunting task in itself, and its formula is extremely complex. Accu-Stats still carries on, but Fleming moved on to videotaping tournament matches and making instructional videos, at which he is without peer.

The ’60s, in balance, may have been the game’s best decade when it comes to media coverage. Sport magazine paid tribute to Mosconi in a piece called, “The Vest-Pocket Master of Six-Pocket Billiards.” 1961 brought pool’s first-ever anthologized article, a magnificent profile of Jack “Jersey Red” Breit titled, “Anatomy of a Pool Hustler,” by Dale Shaw in Saga magazine. The piece was picked up by the annual collection Grantland Rice’s Best Sports Stories of the Year. The same author also wrote engagingly of Luther Lassiter in Argosy magazine one year later. And Sports Illustrated, of course, put the oddity named Rudolph Wanderone Jr. on the map by proclaiming he was the real “Minnesota Fats.”

The cue games had virtually nothing going for them with TV until the watershed event of 1978, when ABC-TV Sports Director Roone Arledge (he of the famous quote, “Pool doesn’t draw flies”) was persuaded to allow Wanderone to compete with the immortal Mosconi on “Wide World of Sports.” Remarkably, that show drew ratings second only to the Ali-Spinks fight that year, and the commentator Howard Cosell volunteered, “This is one of the most fascinating segments we’ve ever had on this show.” ABC staged that competition for several more years, until its declining ratings vindicated Arledge once again.

Yet media coverage, scant as it is, figures to endure, whether as serious journalism of mere curiosity pieces. The games themselves have long since proved their powers of endurance.

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