In 1969 David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, decided to broadcast a snooker match. His reasoning was that the green baize and brightly coloured balls were the ideal vehicle for showcasing colour television. The decision won people over to the new medium and revitalised the flagging popularity of the game.
Almost 50 years on and there is talk of the Chinese trying to do something similar for snooker, a sport that has lost ground in the UK since its 1980s peak.
In fact, the game’s fan base is now largely in the Middle East and Asia, especially in China which boasts 60 million amateur players, according to the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association.
More than a million Chinese are training professionally for the game, with state broadcaster CCTV reporting on the hundreds of people who have moved to the UK to further their careers.
China’s leading player is Ding Junhui, who lives part of the year in Sheffield, training at the English city’s World Snooker Academy.
Sheffield is also home to the Crucible Theatre, which has hosted the World Championships since 1977. But with World Snooker’s contract with the Crucible running out next year, China’s snooker promoters are ratcheting up the pressure to move the competition to Beijing.
Beijing’s Xingpai Group – a sports real estate company that started out making billiard tables – has just finished a replica of the Crucible in a leisure park outside the Chinese capital. “Five or six years ago it was agreed that our sports hall will become Beijing’s permanent snooker venue and we have applied for the right to hold the top snooker tournaments there by 2015,” Xing Pai’s chairman said in a statement.
But Barry Hearn, chairman of World Snooker (the game’s governing body) told British newspapers last week that he would never allow the competition to be moved. “It just shows you there are no lengths to which the Chinese people won’t go to actually having the best on their own doorstep. They’ve copied the Crucible and, if anything, it might be slightly better!” he told reporters.
Hearn added, “But in the stroke of a bank manager’s pen we would lose the history and integrity of the event. It is not a franchise that moves around the world — Wimbledon doesn’t suddenly pop up in Buenos Aires.”
Even so, others believe that a move for the World Championships is inevitable, especially as China already accounts for 40% of the sport’s ranking events and 35% of its prize money.
Mark Allen, a professional player from Northern Ireland, agrees that the game is moving towards Asia. “In the last four or five years the televised tournaments in the UK are getting less and less,” Allen acknowledged. “It’s a sorry state of affairs for UK snooker, but for snooker in general it’s probably great, it’s becoming a global sport when it always used to be recognised as just a UK sport.”
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