Fourteen months after its originally planned start date, almost a year after delays in the construction of its arena, and six months after player salary and prize money shortfalls interrupted the season, the Minnesota Outlaws were crowned champions of the inaugural World Professional Billiard League season on Saturday, Feb. 15, at the WPBL Arena in Las Vegas. The Outlaws' victory in seven games over the Atlanta Scorpions was the culmination of a four-year journey for founder Larry Chiborak, who built the league around his new game, Bonus Ball.
"We learned a lot this season," said Chiborak. "And I still think this game and the league has a future."
The Outlaws, wearing home-team white, maintained a reserved team dynamic for most of the championship match (made available on ESPN3), but even the normally stoic Ralf "The Kaiser" Souquet shouted "Yeah!" and leapt to his feet when teammate Jesse Engel, at 21 the youngest player in the league, sank the winning purple ball that secured the trophy and $30,000 for the Minnesota team.
Outlaws captain Thorsten "Hitman" Hohmann had played the night before - with Atlanta captain Johnny Archer observing from the stands - as part of WPBL "All-Stars" vs. Filipino stars Warren Kiamco, Carlo Biado and Dennis Orcullo in a charity event for survivors of the 2013 typhoon that struck the Philippines. The event gave Hohmann extra practice on the game table "under pressure," and he had been paying attention to Archer's Scorpions. The Outlaws had defeated the Pittsburgh Poison two nights earlier, while the Scorpions had become the first of the 12 league teams to win a semifinal a night earlier, eliminating the New York Pride.
"They made mistakes in their last match against New York," said Hohmann. "There were like three unforced errors. But they matured as a team over the season, and I don't expect them to make any mistakes today."
Mistakes would be made though. Archer always appeared completely zoned in on the action, but his Scorpions played with more passion than the Outlaws trio. Both teams would engage in discussion throughout the afternoon after Hohmann made the first break, but Shannon "The Cannon" Daulton and Dennis "The Hatchetman" Hatch tended to be more spirited and spontaneous.
In the opening game, the Outlaws, who had the white pockets in the 9-ball/snooker/one-pocket hybrid game, sank the first one-point orange ball and two-point purple to put a score on the board, but Engel missed the first three-point black bonus ball, allowing Archer and Hatch to sink an orange and purple into black pockets before Daulton blew his shot at the bonus ball. The two teams continued to mirror each other, with Archer and Hatch setting up effective blocks, but at 9-3, Daulton's fast recoil on a quick power shot marked the first of several Atlanta errors. With neither team reaching 30 points for the win as the clock ran out, a shootout ensued. Archer got the break, and a subsequent team debate seemed to pay off with a six-point run. It wasn't enough, and Minnesota earned the first point of the match.
Three doubles games followed, with Hohmann and Souquet squaring off against Archer and Hatch first. The white shirts would leave the black shirts in the dust with a final score of 30-3, bumping the team score to 3-0. Souquet and Engel took on Hatch and Daulton, and the Atlanta pair managed to get the Scopions on the board with a one-point win.
Hohmann and Engel took on Daulton and Archer next. Atlanta commanded the table, running the score to 18-0. An early Bonus Ball sent to a side black pocket by Archer, followed by Daulton pocketing a purple in a corner helped established the Scorpions' momentum. A back-and-forth defensive struggle ensued, until the Outlaws sank an orange and ran the table up to 18-13. Archer pocketed a bonus ball after breaking a fresh rack to push the score to 25-19, with Atlanta scoring six more points before Soquet's last break was ruled an illegal shot by referee Michaela Tabb. Closing with a pair of shoot-out wins, the first half of the championship match ended with Minnesota in front, 3-2.
The pace picked up in the second half, with a trio of singles matches opening the action. Hohmann raced to a three-point, 30-0 victory (leaving eight minutes left on the clock) to push the team score to 6-2. Then, with Hatch on the verge of dropping a three-point shutout on Souquet (which would have pulled the Scorpions to within one, 6-5), the big left-hander suffered a fluke scratch. Souquet managed to take the match to a shoot-out, through which Hatch was able to muster only a single point. The team score stood 6-2.
There would not be an eighth match, as Daulton, who needed a win, could only manage three points against Engel, whose winning purple ball in a corner pocket brought Soquet to his feet. "It's a cruel game sometimes," Daulton said. The mood quickly turned celebratory, though, as the trophy and a platter piled with cash representing a $30,000 prize was brought into the studio by the Bonus Ball girls. WPBL founder Larry Chiborak then took the mic to present the prizes and show appreciation to the audience on hand.
"I believe in the game, I believe in the change, and I think a lot of other people are swaying that way," said Archer in a post-match interview. "It's been a long, grinding couple of years at this. I'm glad we can turn a page. We've got to keep on fighting for it, and pool needs to change. Whether it's this or its something else, I'm not sure what the answer is, but this is just as good as any."
Chiborak intends for Bonus Ball to be that answer. He's weathered criticism regarding his business model and potential of his revenue streams, offered rewards to players he later had to reduce, discovered his original Vegas contractor had an expired license when construction was to begin on his studio, and had to postpone the first season after it originally started last spring due to financial reasons. While it was too soon to announce pay-per-view statistics, the potential for Bonus Ball in the Philippines was enough for him to fly hallway around the world the next morning to gauge interest.
"We're going to look at how the Philippines can get involved with us, perhaps on an international basis with the game and the league. That's why they sent those players to play in the event," said Chiborak. Domestically, Chiborak insisted he has plans to start Season Two of WPBL in the fall. "Last year we started in the springtime and maybe it wasn't right," he said, adding that he intends to schedule "special featured matches" in the Arena during the next few months before picking a date to start the next season.
The spread of franchises across North America - with an amateur league feeding the pro league - is also part of Chiborak's plan. He cited the Phoenix market and "a couple of Canadian markets" as places where Bonus Ball will have a presence. His confidence in the possibilities of branding has been invigorated by the championship, even if he declined to be specific about the source of funding for the second season.
"I have a few investors involved in the project with me, and we're all moving forward," he said, adding that revenues from video, apparel and ball sets could not be solely depended on to fund a second season. "Everything takes some time, so it has to be financed again to take it further. And we'll put all of that together now, and then do it again. If the project is right and the business plan makes sense, there's lots of money in this world. It's a matter of ‘Is this billiards world ready for something like this?' I believe it is."
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