Inside the Mosconi Cup and pool’s plan to be ‘bigger than darts’

There are several great things about the Mosconi Cup, but my personal favourite is the referee. He stands in the middle of the arena wearing a short-sleeved shirt and little white gloves, and his half-hearted attempts to settle down the boisterous crowd garner all the respect of a supply teacher on the last day of term. You don’t get that at the Crucible.

It’s Friday night at Alexandra Palace, and it’s raucous. This is pool’s answer to the Ryder Cup, where Europe take on America in an old, bitter rivalry. To reach the middle, players first have to descend a steep flight of stairs through a crowd of baying fans. The Americans are hounded with boos and jeers; the Europeans are hailed and high-fived as Seven Nation Army blares.

When they reach the table, Europe’s ringleader Jayson Shaw bounces up and down, swinging his towel over his head and singing along to the music. Then he flexes his tattooed arms and lets out a primal roar. Sport needs characters and the Mosconi Cup certainly has one in Shaw, a Glaswegian with sunken eyes under a shaved head who loves playing to the crowd.

The action plays out to a backdrop of jeers and mocking noises, of roars and rowdy chants. There are some fans in fancy dress and the drinks are flowing. It is a pub sport at heart, and there are times when it feels a bit like you’re in a giant pub. The mood is mostly jubilant: Europe dominated the first two days and they are closing in on a fourth successive Mosconi triumph. Two optimistic Americans hold up banners which read “believe”.

Nine-ball pool is a simple enough premise: what would be ‘frames’ in snooker are called ‘racks’, and the aim is to pot the nine numbered balls in order. The player who pots the nine-ball (white with a thick yellow stripe) wins the rack, regardless of who potted the other eight, and getting in early to clear the table is often how racks are won.

Pool has more room for creativity and daring play than its cousin snooker. The rewards are greater, because combo shots or plants – hitting a lower-numbered ball onto the nine-ball to pot it – offer a quick route to winning, and so are often worth the risk.

There is plenty of skill on show: in the second rack of the night, Shaw pulls off a one-cushion trick-shot pot and celebrates with a wagging finger in the air, and the crowd serenade him. Later he dances out of the arena singing along to Freed From Desire after extending Europe’s overall lead.

Both pool and snooker are run by Barry Hearn’s Matchroom organisation, and pool has used some of snooker’s stars to gain some publicity. Several snooker players, like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White, have played in the Mosconi Cup in years gone by, and Judd Trump competed in last year’s US Open, testing the idea that snooker’s master potters can win on pool’s comparatively small table and receptive pockets. Shaw thrashed him 11-1. Trump’s good snooker friend Jack Lisowski also played and had to be reminded of the rules.

Hearn has helped elevate the profiles of snooker and darts, and he has ambitions to grow pool into a “mega sport” watched around the world. “Matchroom will invest whatever it takes to make this game huge,” he said last year.

Matchroom created the World NineBall Tour 18 months ago and put on 45 events in all corners of the globe. Pool is more popular in the US and parts of Europe than snooker or darts, and in Asia there is increasing opportunity too. The recent Hanoi Open in Vietnam was wildly attended by locals.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Emily Frazer, CEO of Matchroom Multi Sport and the person Hearn has charged with growing the game. One of her goals is to expand the 2,500 fans the Mosconi Cup currently entertains each night and to make pool tickets as sought-after as the darts, also held at Alexandra Palace each December.

“Everyone says ‘I would love to go to the darts one year’,” says Frazer. “I look at darts and say to myself, this is what our championships should be, we should be having 4-5000 fans selling the arena out for so many days on the spin, and it’s really where we want to take nine-ball pool. We’re confident pool will be the next darts, if not bigger.”

Shaw approves that ambition. He is measured and softly spoken, a world away from the showman he becomes around the table. After a slump in interest a decade ago, he has noticed pool’s resurgence over the past five years driven by USA’s improved competitiveness in the Mosconi Cup – albeit not this year – and Matchroom’s energy.

“Darts is one of those pub games, it’s very similar, and I feel pool’s got the potential to be something really bigger than what it is right now,” he says, speaking to The Independent just ahead of play. “We’ve got betting companies and cue companies [investing] but we need an outside company who’ve got nothing to do with pool, whether it be a watch company or a car company…

“It has so much potential. Everyone has played a game of pool, there’s always a table somewhere. But they need someone outside to come in and really throw in some money. It would make it easier for Matchroom, because they’re putting a lot of money into building the event, paying the players, and it costs a lot. The future’s looking good, we just need to try and sell the game.”

Shaw loves playing up to the fans

(Getty Images)

Shaw is already doing his utmost in that regard. He was the champion in Hanoi and celebrated by dancing on the table, something of a pool tradition. The Scot loves being in the heat of battle, especially in the Mosconi Cup.

“It’s tough when you’re playing away [against the US in Las Vegas], you’re always getting booed, but in front of a home crowd it feels incredible. In Vietnam a month ago, that was about as close as you get to Mosconi, in front of 3,000 and it was pretty wild too. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.”

Nine-ball pool wants more of these moments. And perhaps the ultimate challenge is not to be the Ryder Cup, or the darts or the snooker, which all have their own distinct character and energy, but to harness pool’s unique selling points and stand alone. A simple game full of flair, with entertaining characters, loud music and well-lubricated crowds? It’s a good place to start.


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