The Storm Before the Calm

A week prior to the start of the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships, players across the United States were informed that they would be required to complete a World Pool-Billiard Association Player License Agreement if they intended to play in the WPA-sanctioned event, setting off wave of questions, allegations and criticism across social media, and threatening the success of the international tournament. The announcement, posted online by the Billiard Congress of America, the North American representative federation to the WPA, seemed to catch many players off guard. The posted announcement and attached license offered no explanation as to why the license was necessary, nor why the players were finding out about the stipulation just days ahead of the country’s biggest tournament. For most players, the license was viewed as a heavy-handed measure meant to place the players at the mercy of the WPA.

“I see only negatives and no positives,” one American player posted on a Facebook thread that prompted hundreds of responses. “Nothing to help the players. Just fines and being excluded from events if they don’t comply with each and every part of this contract.”

At the core of the backlash were stipulations in the license agreement that seemed to make heavy demands of the players and threatened harsh penalties for non-compliance, like fines for missing player meetings, fines for missing publicity appearances, and restrictions on logos affixed to player clothing. Additionally, the license also prohibits players from competing in events not sanctioned by the WPA if that event meets the WPA’s sanctioning criteria.

A “slave agreement,” is how one former player referred to the license. “I’m really surprised that this has become such an issue,” responded Ian Anderson, president of the WPA. “The Player License has been working for some months now, and was a requirement at the men’s World 9-Ball Championship in Qatar in July and the China Open. I’m guessing that it is the players who would only play in one WPA ranking event a year that are so unsure about it all.”

In fact, Anderson went on to point out, virtually every foreign player attending the U.S. Open, as well as a dozen North American players (including American Shane Van Boening), had already signed the license and received a WPA Player Card earlier in the year when they participated in the World 9-Ball Championship and/or the China Open.

According to Anderson, the need for a player license arose in 2014 when promoters of a Chinese 8-ball event tried to force players to sign contracts that would have prohibited their participation in other Chinese events without approval for up to three years.

“I assured the Chinese that the WPA would have a player agreement done to cover the concerns that China claimed it had.”

Anderson also attempted to shed light on the two most contested stipulations of the player license: preventing players from participating in other events; and players being held hostage by the WPA.

“This is not about telling players where they can and cannot play,” he said. “For one, it protects organizers against having their event undermined by someone deciding it a good idea to have a tournament on the same dates as a WPA ranking event.

“Also, I think everyone has missed the very first paragraph of the license, which says, ‘Either party may cancel this license at any time.’ This means that after playing in the U.S. Open, if the player felt he was too restricted or unfairly treated because of this agreement, he could terminate his license immediately.”

Still, the fact that the announcement was made so close to the start of the U.S. Open and the WPA’s late explanation may well have had an adverse reaction on entries into the tournament. According to U.S. Open producer Pat Fleming of Accu-Stats, numerous players called with concerns and complaints.

“There were a lot of complaints,” Fleming said, as he was preparing the tournament site in Norfolk, Va. “Lots of, ‘What’s this?’ There’s not telling how many players who were on the fence decided not to sign up. All of a sudden entries stopped coming in.”

Fleming added that the field, which was expanded to accommodate 164 players this year, was full, but a number of foreign entrants cancelled due to visa issues. American players failed to snatch up the open spots, leaving the final field at 149. Fleming was hesitant to infer that those spots would have been filled had it not been for the WPA Player License.