To traffic inunderstatement, pool has always struggled to capitalize on its popularity. Inthe U.S. the game is played with some regularity by 50 million people, makingit a bigger participatory sport than golf. Until lately, however, a top pro waslucky to make $50,000 a year in prize money. For perspective, the No. 100player on the 2006 PGA Tour money list has already banked more than$700,000.
Some of pool'sproblems are inherent. The sport has never translated well to television, andbroadcast-rights fees are the lifeblood of contemporary sports. Plus, pool'sshadowy characters, rampant gambling and smoke-filled ambience can make it atough sell with sponsors.
Given thathistory, the pool world nearly choked on its chalk last year when theInternational Pool Tour (IPT) started and began throwing around cash as if itwere confetti. Suddenly, unfathomable amounts of money were being paid toplayers who heretofore struggled to stay out of debt. This week's IPT WorldOpen 8-Ball Championship, which concludes on Sept. 10 at the Grand Sierraresort in Reno, has a purse of $3 million. The winner will take home $500,000.A first-round loser will still make $5,000. Says Greg (Spanky) Hogue of Tulsa,"For a lot of us it means we can do what we love for a living."
Getting on theIPT has become the holy grail of the pool world. Hustlers who traveledincognito for years have come out of the woodwork. Two weeks ago Gary Abood, alongtime road player, flew from his base in New Hampshire to London to play ina qualifier in hopes of getting to Reno. "It's a good investment," hesays. "I didn't play near my best [at last month's IPT tournament] in LasVegas, and I won $10,000."
Pool being pool,there are still questionable aspects to all this. The IPT was founded and isrun by Kevin Trudeau, the controversial author of the best-selling NaturalCures books. In addition to having served a two-year prison term for felonylarceny, Trudeau, 43, has often been in the crosshairs of the Federal TradeCommission and various consumer protection groups for allegedly making falseclaims. He has been banned from making infomercials. Some skeptics fear thatTrudeau is simply using the pool tour as a platform to sell more of his booksand products.
Trudeau saysnothing could be further from the truth. Having worked at a pool hall as a kidin his hometown of Peabody, Mass., he had a longstanding passion for the sport,which, he says, was deepened when he befriended Hall of Famer Mike (the Mouth)Sigel. Trudeau saw an underfunded, undermarketed sport and started the IPTbecause, he says, "I saw a huge void in the marketplace."
As for hischeckered past, Trudeau wavers between carefully worded defenses and mildcontrition. He settled his dispute with the FTC without admitting guilt, thoughhe paid a penalty of $2 million. "Some people will look for anythingnegative," he says. "It's like, as a boxer why would you go with DonKing--he's a convicted murderer? The reason is that he's probably the bestpromoter in the business. The past is the past."
Evidence ofTrudeau's expert marketing is abundant on the tour. The IPT fields of between150 and 200 players include both men and women, ranging in age from 13-year-oldprodigy Austin Murphy to sixtysomething legends. The tour is trulyinternational--Germany's Thorsten (Hit Man) Hohmann beat Marlon Manolo of thePhilippines to win in Las Vegas--attracting deals with non-U.S. networks suchas Eurosport. (In the U.S., IPT events have been broadcast, ironically enough,by the Outdoor Life Network.)
If the playershave, thus far, been pleasantly surprised by Trudeau, the feeling is mutual.One key, he says, is "paying these guys like the world-class athletes theyare." Put another way, big money has done a lot to remedy a struggling prosport. A natural cure, you might call it.
The best playersin the world are in Reno this week, vying for the largest payday in poolhistory. Here are five players to keep an eye on.