The culture changing career that all started with a little white lie. Michaela Tabb is widely renowned as a pioneer for equality in snooker, and rightly so. The Scot became the first woman to referee a final of a world-ranking snooker event when she took charge of the Welsh Open in 2007.
Just two years later, she continued to break barriers by refereeing the final of the World Snooker Championship – again the first woman to do so. This was just ten years ago. A ground-breaking achievement indeed, but how different things could have been if her husband hadn’t pounced on an opportunity that would go on to be a catalyst for change in the industry.
Michaela initially started her career playing for the Scottish ladies’ pool team, which is where she met her husband who played for the men’s team. Unbeknown to Michaela, her husband had signed up for an American pool tournament, a televised event occurring once a year and based in Scotland. Typically, the tournament wouldn’t use a referee from Scotland but would bring one from England.
Michaela said: “We had been together for a couple of years at this point and he told the organiser that we had our own referee for American pool, which was an absolute load of crap.
“The lady said get her to send over a CV and a photo. So, I sent a photo, made up a CV, sent it down and I got the job.”
Michaela was then asked to referee at the Mosconi cup, a well-known American pool event run by the same organisers. She was actually unavailable and thought she had relinquished her opportunity. But a phone call inviting her to the masters verified the opportunity was still very much alive.
“I went on to work with them for 17 years. That was American pool and that was televised on Sky Sports,” she said.
It wasn’t just the viewers who were seeing something new in a female referee, but importantly Michaela also caught the attention of World Snooker. The organisation didn’t have a female referee at the time and were looking towards a structural change. Subsequently to the world championships in 2001, they offered Michaela a job as a snooker referee.
“I had to talk to my family because I had a young son, only four at the time. It was a big thing for me to go away for 50 days. But we decided to go for it as a family because it was a fabulous opportunity. There had been female referees before but never on the professional circuit,” Michaela explained.
Upon entering the circuit, Michaela received a largely positive reception from the players, stating that the majority had no problem. For the other referees, however, the response wasn’t quite as unanimous.
She said: “Previously to me coming in, they had a set process of supplying the referees, which was through the professional referees association. It was something that had been historic.
“World Snooker weren’t picking referees, they were being given them. But they wanted some younger referees, some foreign referees and some female referees.”
Michaela was fast-tracked to a position in the circuit. She hadn’t been a member of the association and had never actually refereed snooker.
She said: “As you can imagine it didn’t go down well with a number of referees. A few of them did take me under their wing and I’m very thankful for them and what they did.
“I had no experience and it was a very lonely place if you didn’t have anyone that took you in. I was very thankful to the ones that did, and just had to go out and prove myself to the ones that didn’t.”
This feeling of a need to prove herself was something very much at the forefront of Michaela’s mind. Despite making significant strides, budget cutbacks meant that she was made redundant after just two years on the circuit.Embed from Getty Images
“I was so frustrated it was horrible. It was about June when I got the information that I was being let go. For the whole of that summer I was thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’. I’d worked my arse off and the whole of the snooker world at this point was embracing me,” Michaela exclaimed.
“They thought I was great and I knew BBC and Sky thought I was great. I couldn’t believe I’d been let go after I’ve worked so hard and done so well.”
Michaela was not left out of the picture for long, however. Heads from both Sky Sports and BBC went on to work at World Snooker and questioned their decision to let the female referee go. She was swiftly reinstated and given continuous service.
“That was like the dawning — ‘actually you know what you can do this job’. Even after two years I still didn’t believe in myself because I was just constantly having to work so hard, I felt much harder than my male colleagues just to produce the same results.
“It was two years before I actually started to accept that I was a good referee. There was always that battle, any mistake to me was massive. Other people could put the ball on the wrong spot because they’d lost concentration.
“But to me it was massive. I thought I couldn’t do that because I was trying to be absolutely perfect. It stood out if I did something that was wrong because I was the only woman.”
In Michaela’s mind, she had now proved both to herself and everyone else that she was a top-level referee. On taking charge of the Welsh Open final in 2007, Michaela said: “It’s one of the smaller finals, but to be given the opportunity to go out there and be the first female to take charge of a final was great.
“I started in 2001 and they could have pushed me quicker to be in a final. But they didn’t. They made sure that the timing was right, I had the experience and that everyone believed I had done a good enough job to be given the opportunity.
“I was in such an amazing place and the final was just wonderful. I had very few nerves. I was almost relishing the job that I was doing.”
The final of the World Snooker Championship in 2009 represented a different challenge, however.
“They let me know at the beginning of the 2009 season that I was getting the final. I felt like I had about ten months of complete scrutiny. Even though it hadn’t been announced to the world – I knew. I felt it was ten months where I could make a mistake and ruin my chances.
“Nowadays they don’t let the finals referees know until around January or February. Of course, you can mistake a mistake and I was under so much pressure.”Embed from Getty Images
Michaela states that the pressure she felt was undoubtedly internal, generated in her own mind. This may be the case, however being the first female referee in a previously traditionally male sport could not have been easy. Importantly, Michaela’s emergence had a wider impact than she may have originally known. There is now an abundance of female referees on the circuit, which fills Michaela with great pride.
“There are so many females out there and it’s obviously because they’ve seen what I was doing.
“If I’m being honest, it’s fabulous for me, because I know that my legacy is that all these young ladies that I can see on the television are doing that job because I did it.”
The influential referee left her position on the circuit in 2015, which was followed by a court case where a settlement was reached after an unfair dismissal claim. Michaela continues to referee legends events. Despite no longer remaining a member of the circuit, her legacy lives on.
Featured photograph/Michaela Tabb