Sports Nut

More Chicks With Sticks

Hey! ESPN! We want the boys to play nine-ball against the girls! 

Well, whaddya know? It turns out that my idea of pitting men against women in a Battle of the Sexes nine-ball tournament, which I floated in my recent paean to the great Allison Fisher, is not exactly an original one in the world of professional billiards. “The idea has been tossed around for a long time,” says Lisa Stancati, the executive director of the Women’s Professional Billiards Association. “We’ve had promoters come to us who would love to stage it.” But, she adds ominously, “It’s just not something we’re prepared to do right now.” Sigh.

Here are her two big objections. First, the men’s tour, according to her, is in a state of disarray. It has no TV contract, its players are less well known than the top women nine-ball players, and it has fewer sponsorships and smaller purses. Though she wouldn’t say so directly, she gave the distinct impression that she wasn’t much interested in helping to bail out the men’s tour by giving the men the kind of billing—and TV time—that the women’s tour now has. In fact, she didn’t sound much interested in having any dealing at all with the men’s tour, at least not until it got its act together.

Second, Stancati said, a mixed-sex tournament is a non-starter without the “big-time backing” of a TV network—including (and these are her exact words) “a huge rights fee.” Clearly, this position stems at least in part from her general frustration with ESPN, which not only doesn’t promote the tournaments it televises, it doesn’t even pay for them. The cost of staging the events—about $240,000 for six tournaments—is picked up by the tour itself, which hands the network three pre-cut hours of television for each of six tournaments. “We give them 18 original hours of television,” she said, sounding annoyed at the way ESPN uses that programming. “I encourage you to contact ESPN with your complaints about its lackluster scheduling,” she told me.

How are the ratings? “Pretty damn good for something that gets zero promotion,” Stancati said; when the tournaments are shown in prime time, they get around a 1 rating—which is to say, right up there with CNN or MSNBC on most nights. And what does she mean by a “huge” rights fee? “I’m certainly not going to mention any numbers in public,” she replied.

I can’t blame her for that; I wouldn’t reveal it either if I were in her shoes. Still, it sounds to me that she should put her annoyance aside and enter into negotiations if a network steps up. How about it, ESPN?