Interview: Jason Francis reveals the incredible rise of World Seniors Tour

Snooker’s wave of excitement continues this week with the ROKiT World Seniors Championship.

Just days after the professional version of the World Championship reached its climax with a sixth World title for Ronnie O’Sullivan – some very well known names of the past will be battling it out for glory at snooker’s famous home.

The likes of Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry, Dennis Taylor, Nigel Bond and Joe Johnson – to name just a few – will be back at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield looking to win the World Seniors title and the top prize of £25,000.

A year ago Jimmy White made the headlines after finally ending many years of hurt by winning the World Seniors Championship at the very venue which caused him so much heartbreak throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

This year and for the first time, the BBC have joined forces with the World Seniors team to show live coverage of the tournament, which sadly will be played behind closed doors due to Covid.

Live coverage for UK viewers will be available on BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer, and the BBC Sport website.

The live matches and expected huge TV audiences around the world will add a new dimension to the Seniors Tour never seen before.

Ahead of the event, which kicks off on Wednesday, World Seniors Snooker chairman Jason Francis spoke to Snooker Chat and revealed how the incredible Seniors Tour journey continues to rise despite the many challenges that can stand in the way.

Here’s what he had to say.

Jason Francis. Picture: WPBSA

Thanks Jason for your time. Firstly you must be delighted to be back hosting an event again after what’s been a tough year for everyone around the world?

It’s been an incredibly tough year for sport in general and I think snooker has led the way.

It’s unbelievable what World Snooker Tour have done in getting the professional World Championship on and it has been incredibly touch and go for us but thanks to the work of so many people – we’ve pulled it out the bag and will stage the ROKiT Phones World Seniors Championship this week.

Last year’s event at the Crucible proved so popular didn’t it?

We had a great home at Scunthorpe but it became very clear to me if you are going to hold a World Championship in snooker and there is a way to get it played at the historical home of snooker then we would have been crazy not to exploit it.

Last year was just an incredible time to stage it and we just have to make sure this week that Jimmy White does not fall victim to the Crucible curse.

Jimmy White winning at the Crucible was such a huge story for you last year – you couldn’t have had a more ideal winner given his history at the venue?

Jimmy had been trying to win a major title at the Crucible for 39 years and although it was not a professional title – trust me – it was as hard fought as his world professional titles especially when you look at the field that was in it last year and the pressure.

That place holds a lot of demons for him. It was a great achievement but he also laid them demons to rest.

Jimmy White. Picture by Monique Limbos

I’m sure Jimmy White is working hard to defend his crown?

Yeah for sure. They’ve all been working so hard.

There was a misconception when this tour started – that it was some exhibition tour for the old former greats and they tell a few jokes and they might make 30 or 40 break.

Trust me now this tour is the best over 40s amateur tour in the world. There is no where else you will find a better standard of amateur snooker

Last week the BBC broadcast the first round draw live – that must have proved to be a big plug for this year’s event?

To have a broadcasting partner such as the BBC joining us this year is obviously brilliant for us, our sponsors and our players. Now, I’ve got to make sure I do my job and make sure we put on a show which is entertaining and has a high production quality to make sure this is not the only time the BBC are with us.

I think we have got a wonderful opportunity over what has happened over the last 17 days on the BBC. Everybody is talking about snooker. It’s funny how it has worked out but it feels right that the World Seniors follows on from the World Professional Championship even though it wasn’t planned.

Is that something you are looking to sort in the future – hosting the World Seniors Championship straight after the World Professional Championship?

Already we have identified the benefits and synergies of this and we would love to stage next year’s World Seniors Championship in May after the World Professional Championship. There is still a lot of work to do for that to happen and we have to bear in mind that we are working at venues that are having a real tough time at the moment with Covid.

But yes in an ideal world it would be lovely if our Championship could always follow on because they tie in with each other very well.

We’ve also done a deal with Barry Hearn to give opportunities for some of his lower ranked players aged over 40.

We understand that not everyone can have the earning potential in the game like a Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump or a Mark Selby. There are a lot of professionals that have given their life to this sport who are sitting in the lower rankings and can potentially have a sniff of our prize money too.

The BBC will be showing games live via their digital platforms – how does that benefit the seniors tour moving forward?

There is no doubt the BBC gives us a huge platform. The BBC website is the most watched sports website in the world and getting matches on the Red Button has been fantastic as well.

Don’t forget we are a global tour, so outside the UK Matchroom Live is screening every shot live throughout the world.

In China, which is huge for snooker, there will be huge TV viewings as well.

It’s a shame we can’t have as much as an international field this year but one thing for sure is that we’ve kept the event on and this sport will always throw up a story.

You mention there the TV audiences for the Senior Tour – this four or five years ago was your dream, is that right?

It’s been well documented that when World Seniors first started it was a little bit of me doing everything.

I started this with Barry Hearn and everybody a few years ago because we saw the potential where this could go but it wasn’t going to get there instantly.

We saw this opportunity and earlier this year we got some resources to go with it. We’ve now got some fantastic board members helping me – one of whom is David Murray who is an ex Head of BBC Sports Rights – so suddenly we are able to go through doors or have conversations which we wouldn’t have been able to have before.

But having conversations is one thing, we still have to deliver and that’s what we have to do this week.

It’s big week for us- we’ve not staged an event in a while so we are all a bit rusty. There’s a nervous excitement that we are starting again.

You’ve just announced Ronnie O’Sullivan has agreed to be a back up player in case someone tests positive for coronavirus. Could he win again at the Crucible this week?

It was a little bit tongue in cheek let’s be honest. Obviously, Ronnie is a great friend of mine and he’s over 40 so he is eligible to play on the tour.

But his current ranking means perhaps he is not so eligible to play on the tour but we were always planning to have a back up player in case someone tested positive.

Wayne Copper from Bradford was the next one on the ranking list and then we had the Covid travel restrictions placed upon us which affected Tony Drago. I’m heartbroken for Tony because he’s now healthier and fitter and been working hard in Malta.

So as it currently stood we did not have a back up player if anyone tested positive for Covid over the next couple of days. So I said come on Ronnie – you’re over 40, in Sheffield and have been tested. He went ‘no problem mate I’ll come down and have a laugh with the boys’.

Ronnie O’Sullivan. Picture by Monique Limbos

So he’s going to pop down this week and he said he will bring the trophy along.

I know as a friend how tough it is for Ronnie when it’s the World Championship. It’s not easy. Him winning is great for the game – when he does well snooker tends to get more global coverage.

This year’s event will be played behind closed doors – how much will you miss the fans?

The fans will be a massive miss for us.

First financially – we rely on ticket sales and VIP packages so without ROKIT Phones and our other sponsors this event would not have gone on. We’ve had no ticket income- it’s as simple as that.

And everyone saw the huge difference having a crowd made to the World Championship final.

Tributes continue to pour in for Willie Thorne since his passing earlier this year. He played in this event twelve months ago – would he have played this year do you think if he was fit and healthy?

Willie was due to play in the Legends Cup, which is the curtain raiser for this event, and would have been part of our commentary team.

Willie hadn’t played for 21 years and I like to think I played a small part in him picking up his cue again. I said to him there’s work here for you if you can get some practice in.

The one thing I will remember will be the ovation he got when he walked through the Crucible Theatre last August to play what turned out to be his last ever snooker match. He was back at the home of snooker in front of a packed crowd.

He’s a big loss to the sport.

The World Seniors Championship starts at 7pm with live coverage for UK viewers on BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website.

One thought on “Interview: Jason Francis reveals the incredible rise of World Seniors Tour

  1. Pingback: First Day at the WSS ROKiT Phones.com 2020 World Championship | The WPBSA World Seniors Tour

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