Mike Watterson obituary

Sports promoter who took snooker’s World Championship to the Crucible in Sheffield

The sports promoter Mike Watterson, who has died aged 76, helped to transform snooker and darts in the 1970s and 80s into major televised sports enjoyed by millions. He also had eventful spells with Derby County and Chesterfield football clubs, and brought floodlit cricket to Britain.

Watterson’s greatest breakthrough came in 1976. That year’s World Snooker Championship was split between Middlesbrough town hall and the Wythenshawe Forum in Manchester. It was beset with problems and there was a real possibility that the sponsors, Embassy, would pull out, bringing the tournament to an end.

In August of that year Watterson married Carole Walker. Around that time she went to see a play at the Crucible in Sheffield, a theatre-in-the-round that she realised would be a perfect venue for snooker.

Watterson phoned the Crucible’s manager, Arnold Elliman, and asked him whether he could stage the World Championship there. They measured the stage (36ft) and there was just enough room for two tables. The tournament took place at the Crucible the following year, and has remained in that talismanic building ever since.

Born and educated in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Watterson was the third of four children of George, a steelworker, and his wife, Olive (nee Pilkington). After finishing school he worked as a car salesman in Sheffield and was one of the first people in Britain to sell the Vauxhall Viva when it was launched in 1963.

With a razor-sharp mind and an eye for a good deal, he was good at his job and, having escaped the hardships of his childhood, enjoyed life’s indulgences, especially luxury cars.

A first attempt at promoting snooker came in 1972, when Watterson staged a two-night match between Ray Reardon and the newly crowned maverick world champion, Alex Higgins, at Staveley Miners Welfare club in Derbyshire, attracting 140 spectators. Snooker’s profile had risen in the previous three years thanks to BBC Two’s Pot Black series, and Watterson saw opportunities to expand and make the game more professional.

The contrast between the 1976 World Championship and the following year’s luxurious surroundings of the Crucible could not have been more striking: the modern professional snooker tour was born.

Later in 1977 Watterson created the UK Championship from scratch, and he also diligently built up relationships with sponsors and broadcasters. By the early 80s the BBC and ITV were showing hundreds of hours of snooker each year. The British Open, International Open and World Cup became part of Watterson’s portfolio within a few years, meaning he created and promoted almost all of the major professional events of the era.

He also came up with the idea of a World Professional Darts Championship, partly motivated by a desire to help his friend John Lowe to earn a decent living from the game. The inaugural tournament was staged in 1978, and a year later Watterson created a system of sets and legs for the darts and indoor bowls events he promoted. The format remains popular with broadcasters as it ensures a climax roughly every 20 minutes.

Aside from his business dealings, Watterson was a good snooker player himself: the 1978-79 season, in which he won two big amateur titles, was his best. Two years later he gained professional status and, despite being past his prime, completed victories over a number of leading players, including Higgins. He had a highest world ranking of 34.

Between 1977 and 1979, floodlit cricket had gained popularity in Australia through Kerry Packer’s World Series, and Watterson brought the concept to Britain in 1980 with a six-a-side tournament between Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Kent at Bramall Lane in Sheffield. A year later he created the first UK Indoor Bowls Championship at Preston Guild Hall.

Watterson had an eventful spell as chairman of Derby County in the early 80s. He sought to bring Brian Clough, the European Cup-winning manager of arch-rivals Nottingham Forest, back to the club he had left a few years earlier, but when that approach failed he persuaded Clough’s former assistant, Peter Taylor, out of retirement to become manager.

It was a decision he would later have cause to regret, and battles in the boardroom, combined with disillusionment at the club’s hooligan problem, led to his departure in 1983. In June of that year Watterson saved his local club, Chesterfield, from being wound up in the high court by settling tax and customs debts totalling £91,000, and later went on to serve as chair for a year.

Petty jealousies, backstabbing and boardroom bickering had led to Watterson being squeezed out of darts and snooker promotions by 1983, and long years of mismanagement followed in both sports. Watterson’s bitterness about the way he had been treated stayed with him, and he had effectively retired by the mid-80s, still only in his 40s.

He mainly focused thereafter on family life, as well as managing his considerable property and share portfolios, but during the early 90s had a spell as a snooker commentator for Eurosport and Sky TV, continuing so until the middle of the decade, when he stood down to spend the winter months in Spain.

He is survived by his third wife, Diane (nee Payne), a chiropodist, and his three children, Dean, from his first marriage, to Daphne, which ended in divorce, and Andrew and Nicholas, from his marriage to Carole, who died in 1991.

• George Michael Edwin Watterson, sports promoter, born 26 August 1942; died 8 March 2019

Contributor

Marcus Stead

The GuardianTramp

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