RONNIE O'SULLIVAN has been gagged from discussing breakaway plans threatening to rip snooker apart.

The baize's two biggest names — The Rocket and Barry Hearn — had an astonishing war of words in December over the direction of the sport.

O'Sullivan claimed he had met privately with other players and rival promoters about forming an alternative competition.

Hearn called any such proposals 'ludicrous'. But he also admitted talk of stars leaving the tour was 'damaging'.

World Snooker duly wrote to the five-time world champion — warning him such talk was in breach of contract and of possible disciplinary action.

Chairman Hearn, 70, said: “We have served the papers on Ronnie to make sure he understands what the players’ contract says and there is no dispute.

“He has been referred to disciplinary council. It’s an on-going process. When you are in the international, global sports market, you cannot have any grey areas.

“It’s a bit like Man Utd or Liverpool saying: ‘We can do our own TV deal.’ It would weaken the brand of the Premier League.

“Every player benefits from that collective bargaining position. So we don’t want that undermined by any silly remarks about potential alternative ways of watching snooker.

“Ronnie’s remarks went beyond that and he has to be answerable and reminded that is a breach of contract.

“I don’t see it as a massive thing now because it went away as quick it came out.

“Simply because the other players said you must be mad and we are staying where we are. But it was a stern warning shot to Ronnie.

“If people think they can go somewhere else and do something different, it weakens your position in business. And that’s not something I will tolerate.

“It is nothing to do with me. I have made my points. I’m out of it once it goes to the disciplinary process. You never want to blow it out of proportion because it doesn’t deserve to be.”

Asked by SunSport about the situation, O’Sullivan declined to comment, saying the letter had been passed on to his management team.

Hearn claims TV figures were down for the first three days of the championships.

But despite O’Sullivan’s shock first-round exit to amateur James Cahill, the snooker supremo says BBC and Eurosport are reporting record numbers for Crucible action.

Hearn said: “The sport always need great players but no sport revolves around one person. Tiger Woods makes a big difference to golf. Ronnie makes a big difference to snooker.

“But even without Ronnie and Tiger, the sports are in good places. Of course, it can be better and improve. Ronnie can be difficult for me sometimes, but I wish I had six of him rather than one.”

Hearn was speaking at the Betfred World Snooker Championship to discuss a raft of changes for the new season.

This includes four rounds of qualifying instead of three for the 2020 worlds and offering legendary Jimmy White, a six-time finalist, a two-year invitational tour card.

One new innovation involves splitting a £1m bonus pot between players if 20 or more 147 breaks are hit during the 2019-20 season.

O’Sullivan thought it was a rubbish idea, saying it was unachievable and was purely cheap publicity.

The 43-year-old told Eurosport: “Barry Hearn is a cross between Del Boy and Arthur Daley, he’s always looking for a good cheap sound-bite.

“This is a good way to say 20 maximums, there’s a £1m prize on offer – it’s not going to happen but it sounds good.”

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