The World Snooker Tour went to war with five of its own players on Tuesday evening, threatening them with legal action if they took part in an unsanctioned event in Macau.
Four-time world champions Mark Selby and John Higgins, this year’s Crucible winner Luca Brecel, Ali Carter and Thailand’s Thepchaiya Un-Nooh have all turned down the WST’s Northern Ireland Open to take part in the money-spinning exhibition in China.
And the WST has now warned the stars that if they went ahead and played in Macau they would be in breach of their contracts and could be fined or banned.
They said: ‘As the exhibition event in Macau clashes directly with the latter stages of the Northern Ireland Open, a player’s participation in it would constitute a breach of his playing contract.
“As a result, if these players decide to participate in the Macau exhibition, the WST will have no choice but to refer them to the WPBSA disciplinary committee for breach of their player contract.”
An exhibition in Macau, described as China’s Las Vegas, has created a rift between the stars and the tour
Four-time world champion Mark Selby is one of five players leading the player mutiny
Both John Higgins (left) and world champion Luca Brecel have avoided the Northern Ireland Open
World number one Ronnie O’Sullivan, who himself played at an exhibition in Shanghai this month, backed the ‘Macau Five’ and described WST’s stance as ‘b*ll*cks, trying to scare players like that’.
Lawyers representing the players claim that WST’s threats are unfounded because they did not participate in the tournament. So they have not withdrawn from WST events and are going to Macau on their own time.
Experts say the Belfast tournament has been ‘decimated’ as the game’s biggest stars opted for an exhibition in Macau known as the ‘Las Vegas of the East’. Qualifying for the Northern Ireland Open also clashes with another event in Shanghai that will feature Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Mark Williams and others.
The tensions expose the crisis at the heart of the sport, as tour events compete against the vast sums of money offered to stars just to come and play in China.
Many of the players involved are outraged by what they see as heavy-handed tactics. Co-organizer Victoria Shi, owner of an academy in Sheffield, has also been threatened with action.
Selby, who has suffered greatly from mental health problems in recent years, is understood to have asked him not to receive any further correspondence on the matter.
This is accompanied by another well-paid unofficial event featuring O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Mark Williams, Jack Lisowski and Ding Junhui looming in Shanghai even earlier this month.
The exhibition in Shanghai takes place during the Northern Ireland Open qualifying event. The top 16 players involved could still appear in the final stages as their opening rounds are postponed.
But WST was also not happy with the presence of big names at this event, believing it would leave the qualifiers in the shadows. They initially banned the players from participating – before softening their stance.
And they sent similar threatening letters to players urging them to keep all involvement in Shanghai quiet, demanding a social media and news blackout – and participation in Belfast, for which only Williams has been confirmed.
The player power situation poses a huge challenge for the governing body going forward, with big stars openly flouting their authority – and lawyers no doubt licking their lips.
Ronnie O’Sullivan supported the players’ mutiny and criticized the WST for scaring players
With Chinese tournaments back on the calendar this season after three years following the Covid pandemic, WST had hoped for a smoother run in 2023-2024.
But after those years of lower profits, new opportunities are opening up in the Far and Middle East. Players want to make money – leading to the current queue.
And the events of the week have highlighted the gulf between the best players and the game’s rulers. There is even tacit talk of a boycott of the prestigious Masters in January.
O’Sullivan was among those who were fiercely critical of some aspects of the way the tour is organised, the venues used in Britain and the treatment of the players outside Asia.
He has even raised the possibility of a breakout tour in the past – which sounds less fanciful today than it did.
WST was accused earlier this year of attempting to silence players and ban them from speaking to the media about a major meeting discussing the future of the sport.
But on this occasion it appears that similar attempts have backfired, with the players involved calling WST’s bluff over both Macau and Shanghai.
O’Sullivan, the sport’s biggest draw, has led to calls for players to maximize their earnings.
Speaking about the Shanghai exhibition, he said: ‘There is absolutely no reason to try to stop me and other players from going to Shanghai for the Northern Ireland qualifiers.
O’Sullivan himself will play a lucrative exhibition in Shanghai later this month
‘That is a small event, we are not involved and we could still play in the final phase while our matches are postponed.
‘Players are just trying to make money, it’s their choice. And they realize their value. They try to limit us. Those involved in Shanghai received letters advising them not to play.
‘I know that before the tournament in Macau, players also received even stronger threatening letters telling them that this was a breach of their contract.
“That when they were given the opportunity to play in an official tournament, they turned it down and chose to go elsewhere, and that was detrimental to the sport.
‘It’s nonsense to scare players like this. It’s wrong and I’m glad they’ve taken a strong stand.
‘It’s about players being able to earn what they can, and choosing how and when they play. They can participate in a tournament, but they don’t have to.
“They were always trying to tell me what to say until I got a really good lawyer who stood up to them. If they want to play silly games, we can all play silly games.”