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Earning from the green baize. African champion Rukia Nayiga once contemplated life away from the pool table but she now looks contented with the game both as a player and an investor. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE

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Making a living on the pool table

What you need to know:

  • Changing lives. Once maligned as a game for vagrants in bars, pool has not only gained its place in the sober society but is giving many young players a second chance at life.

The sport of pool continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Even though the growth is mainly rooted in the entertainment industry rather than for sporting reasons, the success of the sport of the sport will be measured by how well they can tap into this popularity to unlock revenue streams and feed expense streams for the team owners.

A new broadcast deal with Sanyuka TV, whose details are actually very scanty, will fetch the Pool Association of Uganda (PAU) more fans.

PAU chairman Bob Trubish said that this TV deal, which will see premier pool events aired live on TV, will gain more teams.

“It offers us a platform to do business. Our partners can get value being shown on television,” Trubish said.

Even though PAU has lifted value for all stakeholders, there is a wide variance in the scale of growth. At the top of the pecking order is the executive committee, which needs to be sustained. As much as deals have drawn attention, player salaries have not kept pace. Neither has how much PAU spends on clubs and their development.

Player expectations

Players who do all it takes to keep the game on the green baize have reason to expect more. It is the hope that keeps them coming.

Wesley Raymond Jr regards pool as the easiest and cheapest games to learn.
“Compared to football, one needs a football stadium, football equipment and the like. Yet pool only requires a coin of Shs500 to start learning,” the game enthusiast says.

“In future, pool can be a game of high returns for those that take it seriously by playing tournaments, money matches as well as the big one of winning the National Open which is a life changing moment as it comes with big prizes (car, money and pool tables.”

But there are players whose lives are defined by pool.

When newly crowned PAU Grand Open champion Kenneth Odongo dropped out of school in 2019 after sitting his A-Level Exams, he focused his minds on playing pool to make a living. Yet for more than 10 years of active playing, the Shs2m cash prize he got from Seeta was his biggest single earning ever.

“I now realised that I can make something out of playing pool. Hopefully it [pool] can change my life,” the 22-year-old, whose family plays a supporting role for his away travels, said.

Yet the sport remains a dry land in terms of remuneration. The most valuable player in the sport’s history, Alfred Gumikiriza, was bought for Shs7m by Ntinda Giants as they lured him from Club Klein in 2018. 

Small gain...Eking a living

To survive, many players work as pool attendants. African champion Rukia Nayiga currently works at Amigoz in Kabalagala while she owns two tables in Makindye.

She has formerly worked as an attendant at Temuseewo. Former champion Ssewankambo sells pool tables and their accessories while former national team captain Alfred Gumikiriza operates a pool arena in Mukono.

The other big money transfer was for Fahad Ssewankambo, who was bought by Hot Pool for Shs6m from Samona in 2019. Wasswa Kayiiya’s transfer from Scrap Buyers to Samona was the other big money move known.

In the current window, most players have been offered as little as Shs500,000 to join new clubs. Obviously the coronavirus pandemic did not leave the sport the same. Many clubs are struggling and others called it quits.

In order to survive, countless players work as pool bar attendants. African champion Rukia Nayiga currently works at Amigoz in Kabalagala while she owns two tables in Makindye. She has formerly worked as an attendant at Temuseewo. 

Former champion Ssewankambo sells pool tables and accessories while former national team captain Gumikiriza operates a pool arena in Mukono.

“This is what we have been used to. All I know is playing pool and it is easier for us to be closer to the sport,” Gumikiriza noted.

Indeed, they have got few options. There are few pathways. No paying coaching jobs yet at numerous events players are allowed to self-officiate.

“The time you see a professional football game going on without a referee just know there is a problem. Yet in pool, even a game of top players in Uganda can go ahead without an umpire! It means that the people who earn from the sport are very limited,” Gumikiriza added.

But there is an exclusive class that has earned white collar jobs. Adam Sebbi is a banker, so is former treasurer Oscar Ocakacon and current chairman Trubish.

The missing link is probably the sport’s failure to embed itself in the educational set up.
Whereas other sports have gained momentum by establishing a strong footing in the educational set up, pool, still widely regarded as a bar sport, is playing to the gallery.

It was played as a demonstration games during the 18th Inter-University Games at Kisubi in December 2019 but there were no deliberate efforts to take advantage of the launchpad.

Without the benefit of players accessing bursaries in school, the quality of the players consists of school dropouts leaving the sport completely a ghetto game.

Angelo Makona, a pool manager based in Mukono, wants first of all players to look beyond piecemeals. 
Makona, who offered a land title for the next Mukono Open championship, says the players can look at connections that can help them in future.

“I want players to dream big and own something substantial when they retire,” Makona said.
No business sense

Pool has struggled to make business sense for quite a long time. It is a sport that eats the babies it produces.

One of the biggest investors the sport has had Ssalongo Kasawuli of the dominant Samona Pool Club in yesteryear, distanced himself from pool for personal reasons so is former publicist and prominent real estate developer Vincent Magandaazi.

Whereas investors pull out, players feel the frustration. Uganda’s top seed Mansoor Bwanika, a former street child, who won the Nile Special Open in 2019 and drove away in a brand new car, talked of the frustration of failing to secure top deals.

“Pool is all I know. When I had no chance to play any other sport, pool took me in. I was really talented at shooting which attracted many sponsors, but to get to the next stage, I need ambitious managers who can take me there,” Bwanika said.

Bob Kateregga, a renowned pool promoter, who manages the immensely talented Ibrahim Sejjemba, has always insisted on having the right structures for the sport.

“We need to have clear minded people if we are to progress. We should look at pool as a great potential to make money. Despite Uganda having the most talented players, they still go semi pro in Zambia, a country ranked below us because they have clearer streams of getting money into the sport,” he said.
Currently, pool players earn money from money challenges, probably the biggest source for the top players or signing for clubs while clubs themselves count on the “bottomless” pockets of individuals.

Robert Kayanja, the PAU technical director and experienced administrator, explains that the association can play its part but clubs must also be aware of their roles.

“Taking football as an example, pool clubs should be more enterprising. They need to look for sponsors to be able to manage their own affairs,” Kayanja said.

The elephant in the room though is that Pau is in a similar boat as clubs. The league, which is the longest calendar event, has been running without a sponsor while the prestigious National Open has been on its knees since Nile Special stopped the taps.

Diversify or die

The biggest question though remains whether there can be real change while Uganda still promotes blackball. In monetary terms, snooker is the daddy of all cue sports as it attracts tremendous television audience.

Trying to step up from the pocket billiards table of 4.5 by 9 feet) to the blue snooker table can be demanding. Technically, it requires potting precision, positional, game and time management as well as tactical play on a much larger surface area of 6x12 feet over a longer period of time.

“This is where the money is but worldwide it disturbs even the most proficient pool players,” Gumikiriza argues.

Of course, there are different skills involved in both games, but Ismail Kalibbala, an experienced umpire and head of the competitions committee of PAU said that giving a try at various cue sports is important.

“This is partly the reason why we are working towards becoming a federation. As PAU, we are limited to only blackball but as a federation the possibilities are limitless to all cue sports,” Kalibbala said.

Promoting snooker is unlikely to change the enduring perception of pool, but it is a timely challenge for pool in Uganda.

For a long time, pool was regarded with disdain by many especially because it was popularised in bars. Many young players such as Bwanika have told of how they had to rebel against their parents to keep their passion for the green table on course.

But the sport is now above disdain.

The Rise...Overcoming perception

For a long time, pool was regarded with disdain by many especially because it was popularised in bars.

Many young players such as Bwanika have told of how they had to rebel against their parents to keep their passion for the green table on course.
 

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