China Non-Crisis: from the pub to Beijing, and then the four corners of the Earth … the global spread of snooker

Written by on 31st March 2023

An investigation into snooker’s rise from a Commonwealth-only game to a genuinely worldwide sport.

Since snooker began, it has always been a popular sport in the UK. The identity of the game is changing as the sport spreads to other countries globally, with tournaments across the world and its biggest break has undoubtedly been in China. Will the widespread globalisation destroy the historic UK culture that snooker has, or will it cue the sport onto new heights?

This feature will answer that question, with insight from current players Liam Highfield and Chris Wakelin, alongside opinion from the head of media at World Snooker- Ivan Hirschowitz.

Snooker shot in action. Credit: Matthew Hunter

Liam Highfield, World Snooker no.42, likes that the sport is growing into different countries but says that the “we need to keep a several tournaments in this country” and “it’s important to keep its traditions in the UK”.

You can count on one hand the number of sports that Britain dominates more than snooker. The cue sport was founded in India, but it was British Army officers in in the 19th century who are said to have invented it. Last season more than half of the ranking tournaments were played in this country, with the most prestigious World Championship tournament taking place at the iconic Crucible theatre in Sheffield, a venue that has hosted the finals since 1977. Also, last season, excluding the British tournaments, there was competitions in Germany, Gibraltar and Turkey. The modern game in 2023 has more nationalities on the tour than ever and as of March 2023, there are 23 Chinese snooker players on the circuit, equating to 17% of the 130 professionals on the tour.

The sport is rapidly growing and they aim to expand even more. Ivan Hirschowitz, the head of media at World Snooker, commented on the expansion and said “we aspire to be like other global sports such as golf, football and tennis- that’s our aim for 5-10 years’ time”.

On if snooker being global is good for the game or not, Liam said “it’s great for the game but it needs to keep its origins, everything should go back to its origins so a tournament in India would be good”. He added “with the rapid growth, we (players) could go to hundreds of countries”.

Chris Wakelin, World Snooker no.28, recognises the growth of snooker in China and what that’s done for the game. He said “we clearly found a success story in China; we need to find others too”!

Globe of International Flags. Credit: Alamy Images

Naturally, with the growth of snooker, the prize money should increase for the tournaments. Liam Highfield, on the matter, said that “as players all you want to do is compete and if that means prize money increases with that, then it’s a bonus”.

Ivan Hirschowitz stated that the bigger the prize fund, the more it will introduce people to the sport and get involved. He said “if prize money is high, it will be an incentive for people worldwide to engage from an early age at grassroots and amateur level”. He continued “in the last few years particularly, the amateur scene has really got going again, with tournaments countrywide every weekend”.

This is encouraging in getting people to take up the sport worldwide and if they are a budding player or a decent level club player, if they win tournaments, they could very much make it onto the tour. Just this season, in the Snooker Shoot Out, two players of only 14 years old defeated professionals on the tour. The first was Vladislav Gradinari, who defeated Ng On Yee 40-1 in a single frame match, whilst becoming the youngest player to ever win a televised ranking event snooker match. The second was Riley Powell, who defeated Kyren Wilson in a thrilling frame that he edged 41-31. Ivan Hirschowitz added “there’s a strong group of teenagers coming through who we will see on the World Tour in years to come”.

So, if the sport is reaching new heights and expanding to other countries, it begs the question of will the most prestigious and notable tournament (The World Championships) move to a larger venue than the 980-capacity Crucible Theatre in Sheffield soon?

Snooker referee arranging pink ball at the beginning of a game. Credit: Alamy Images

Liam Highfield said “for me, it doesn’t matter the number of spectators, the worlds have to stay in Sheffield”. He continued “it started in Sheffield and should remain there, the prestige of being a World Champion at something is valuable. I know it only holds less than a thousand people, but that is more of a lucrative ticket than in a venue of 10,000 capacity perhaps. He added “we’ve got something big here in Sheffield that World Snooker, the WPBSA and the players have made it massive, so staying at the Crucible is important for snooker”.

Chris Wakelin on the Crucible, said “it’s a magical place which is stooped in history”.

Due to the game’s huge expansion and skill level it has, in 2018, several players made a push for snooker to be included in the 2024 Olympic Games, after it just missed the final selection for the previous Olympics in 2020. If it was included, what would that do for the recognition of the sport and its globalisation? Liam Highfield said “if selected, it will certainly bring snooker into a new market, and it can get more recognition. If selected, it would draw the game away from its stereotypes of misspent youth and the cultures surrounding snooker”. He continued “it would introduce the sport into a more mainstream and widespread audience, which would overall improve our game and take it onto a whole new global level”.

To conclude, it’s evident the globalisation hasn’t damaged the game and it recognises its roots in the UK with most tournaments in this country and more abroad than before, and snooker has reached new heights and it will continue to grow, and will hopefully be included in the 2024 Olympic Games!

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