By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
Another obstacle, muses Mark Wilson, is the players themselves. "A band of renegades," he calls them. "The only way you can get two of them to go in the same direction is if they agree to cut the third one's throat. Otherwise it's every man for himself."
This reputation, adds Wilson, has made the sport undesirable to sponsors, and without them, there's little chance of landing a national tour. And without a tour, there's virtually no exposure, meaning the average Joe will never get to know the players.
"It's hard for any professional sport to become very successful, to break into the big time without a successful men's tour," says Thomas E. Shaw, managing editor of Pool and Billiards Magazine.
Shaw says that the Women's Professional Billiard Association should be a model for the men. "A successful women's tour helps tremendously. It's almost saved the game, especially publicity-wise with the television exposure. But until there's a professional men's tour that people can aspire to, it's difficult to break into that big-time-sport thing.
"The women did things right," continues Shaw. "They schmoozed the sponsors, presented a good appearance, were charming, attractive, colorful and interesting. The men, meanwhile, fought among themselves, split into two groups, disbanded, reformed, and started from scratch. It's been that way for 40 years or more, and it's like that today."
The most high-profile advocate of the men's tour is the Billiard Congress of America, a trade association that has picked up the slack by sponsoring a few annual championships.
"You always get some fly-by-night guy," says Wilson. "Pool players have been hustled two or three times. We had a great tour, but we got screwed a few times. They'd have all these big billings, and then you'd have to run to the bank on Monday to make sure the check was good."
The men couldn't even keep Camel cigarettes as a sponsor. In the '90s, Camel invested in a tour and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing it. But the men complained that the marketing money should be used for bigger purses. After a few years dealing with ungrateful players -- a few of whom sued the cigarette maker -- Camel bowed out.
"Do you think Coca-Cola is going to sponsor us?" asks Wilson, "or Johnson's Baby Powder, if we can't even get the cigarette image? Do you think Johnson's Baby Powder wants to spend a dollar on a pool player? What would their advertising campaign be? A guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a syringe stuck in his arm?"
Mark Wilson never wanted to live like his neighbors in Moline, Illinois, most of whom work for John Deere. "All these guys went through their whole life living for retirement. They would work their whole life and they'd say, 'When I get to be 62, I'm going to ride a motorcycle to California.'
"In their mind, that was freedom. I just thought, 'Boy, I just can't do it.' I'd rather not be bored. So I gave up children, a structured family life, pension, retirement, new cars, new houses. But I've been happy, and I've been able to see the world."
Wilson is a clean-cut, affable man with a full head of gray hair and an infectious laugh. "You've got offense, defense and different aspects," he says of pool. "This has got so many different levels to it. The sport has a terrible image, but it's not the game. It's the people that have been around it.
"In baseball," Wilson continues, "if there's a late-inning situation and you have to bunt the guy over to second to try to get a run, you know that based on previous years that the probability produces the best result. Here, there so many close calls on things it takes longer for you to discern all the nuances of your selections."
A consistent swing is key to mastering the game, and to convey that lesson, Wilson explains: "The Stone Age hunter would teach kids just to pull the string back properly and with the right technique for as much as a year before they ever gave them an arrow." He lifts his arm and dangles it at the elbow like a breakdancer doing the robot: "It's all in the swing."
Pointing to the yellow one-ball near a corner pocket, Wilson maintains that most amateurs place too much emphasis on the balls. Shaking his stick like a spear, he adds, "This is what's in our hand: the pool cue. Until we get more command over this, we'll never exhibit control over those."
Wilson caught the billiard bug in Moline, and it followed him to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He dropped out with $2,000 in the bank -- and a great notion.
"I told my dad that I was going to take time away from college to play pool. He said, 'Nice going, son, now you're thinking. You dumbass! What are you doing?'"
In 1996 Wilson won the coveted Mosconi Cup in England -- where it's covered on prime-time TV -- as part of Team USA. "I was back home a week later in Moline, and a guy working for John Deere sees me and says, 'I saw you on TV. I was in Beijing, China, in a hotel room, scanning, and it was you.'"