Friday June 15th, 2007

Is there a sport -- at least this side of boxing -- that suffers from an image problem the way pool does? The sport has plenty to recommend. It's affordable. It's generally indifferent to gender, age and body type. It's easily accessed. It doesn't take long to play. And, without putting too fine a point on it, who doesn't have fun knocking around balls, particularly if there's good music on the juke box and a bottle or amber liquid nearby? Still, pool has a hell of a time shaking its reputation for seediness, however flavorful or endearing that seediness might be. Think pool and many imagine hustlers entering darkened, vaguely sinister rooms thick with smoke. Then, as the Allman Brothers or, say, Joe Cocker wafts through the room, saps get divorced from the contents of their wallet. As Steve Rushin once put it: "Chivalry isn't dead -- but a respiratory ailment prevents it from staying long in most poolrooms."

The sport -- and let's be clear here: it is a sport -- doesn't get much help from its professional incarnations. Historically, pro pool circuits have been case studies in corruption, poor management and professional backbiting. The latest, the International Pool Tour (IPT) was founded by Kevin Trudeau, a man whose bona fides were such that he managed to get himself banned from appearing on television infomercials. After running a few successful events last year that fired the pool world with optimism, Trudeau tried a new tack and declined to pay the players their prize money. Sadly, it now looks like we can add the IPT to the necrology of failed pool tours.

Yet, in spite of itself, pool is thriving at the recreational level. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association recently released findings from a study concluding that pool is one of the few sports with growing participation levels. And better still, the surge is coming from the gilded demographic, those twentysomethings with some disposable income. The evidence is anecdotal too: cruise most towns and it's hard not to notice that upscale pool halls have taken a place next to tapas bars and comedy clubs as voguish hangouts.

Much of the credit for this growth is owed to the American Poolplayers Association (APA), a Missouri-based outfit that claims a quarter of a million players as members and sanctions weekly amateur leagues in 9,000 different sites. If the group's official mission is to organize and standardize recreational pool -- serving as a governing body for amateur pool -- the unofficial mission is to serve as a public relations vehicle for the sport. For one, there's a strict prohibition in gambling. ("That's not the view we want others to have of us," says APA President Renee Poehlman.) Women are welcome and comprise nearly one-third of APA membership. And thanks to an in-house handicapping system, The Equalizer, ball-bangers (beginners) can play alongside the most skilled practitioners. "We don't want to be considered the pool of yesteryear," says Poehlman.

Part of that mission also means emphasizing the fun. Watch pool on television and it's a somber exercise, solemn players sizing up their progression while the crowd is pin-drop silent. During APA play, music often blares in the background and shooters socialize between racks. Teams have five to eight members, so it's not a solitary pursuit. Matches are held virtually anywhere that has a pool table -- one league even competes in a firehouse -- and the national championships will be held in August at the Riviera in Las Vegas.

In most sports, popularity and growth tend to be top down, with the biggest stars fueling grass-roots growth. Michael Jordan arrives on the scene and suddenly kids from Sheboygan to Shanghai are practicing their crossover dribbles. Tiger Woods starts winning majors and sales of golf clubs start to burgeon. In pool, the widespread hope is that the growth will go in reverse. That is, all these league players who play 8-ball and 9-ball each week (and all those yuppies buying tables for their rec rooms) will eventually give birth to a viable pro league. One that draws mainstream sponsors, figures out a way to make pool more television-friendly, and even pays the players the prize money they're owed.

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