EXTRA SEATS have been released for the Dafabet Masters at Alexandra Palace next week, another sign of the uplift in interest in snooker in the United Kingdom.
Participation levels have dropped since the heyday of the 1980s, where snooker clubs thrived. Society has changed. People have different interests. Snooker still commands handsome TV viewing figures but is not seen as fashionable, unlike, for instance, darts or cycling.
But many people who watch snooker have little interest in playing it. They want to watch the best players in the world playing it instead. Audience figures at the recent UK Championship in York were extremely good, there were strong attendances for the Champion of Champions in Coventry and the Crucible is sure to be full every day. The Welsh Open has also moved to a bigger venue in Cardiff.
Reports, then, of the death of snooker in the UK have been greatly exaggerated. While talented young players are no longer coming through in the wave they once did, talent will always find a way eventually. It was widely assumed that China would provide the next batch of young champions – and indeed they still might – but in the ten years since Ding Junhui first won the China Open there is yet to be anyone close to matching his achievements.
I can’t quite remember, but it may have been that 2005 Beijing event where it was first mooted in a UK newspaper that China would one day host the World Championship. Once this was written a couple of times in newspapers it became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with many people – whether they'd been to China or not – stating as a matter of fact that the Crucible’s days were numbered, purely because they’d heard other people saying it.
Well, yes, there are sponsors in China who would like the World Championship to go there, just as there are in places like Qatar and India. But Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre is looking more and more secure as the venue for the sport’s showpiece event, even though there is an issue with the funding it receives from the city council. As long as the BBC wants to cover the championship it will remain in the UK. As long as it remains in the UK the Crucible is the preferred venue.
The thing about honeymoons is that they do not last forever. Snooker’s did not in the UK and it hasn’t in China. There is already a perceptible shift of interest towards pool, which is starting to attract sponsorship and spectator interest.
Pool tables long ago started to encroach into snooker clubs in the UK. It is in some ways a more sociable game to play than snooker for those of a low standard.
Later this month, several top snooker players, including world champion Mark Selby, will compete in a big money pool event in China. Their appearances have been sanctioned by World Snooker. Players have a right to earn a living so good luck to them but they will be lending a degree of credibility to an event which, in the long run, may contribute to snooker’s diminished position as the leading cue sport.
Last season, there were five ranking tournaments in China. This season, the Haikou World Open has gone. There is no immediate prospect of further events being axed but nothing can be taken for granted. It was noticeable World Snooker didn’t dare argue when the Shanghai Masters refused to take the flat draw format. They couldn’t afford to upset more promoters.
For pool to overtake snooker will take several more years, but that it could happen illustrates that snooker cannot afford to concentrate on only one country – including the UK.
That is why the current administration should be applauded for exploring different parts of the globe, including European outposts, like Lisbon, Riga and Sofia.
Germany is another country where more people watch snooker than play it. Despite the large audience figures, sponsorship is still hard to attain but no one can deny the interest.
And so back to the UK, where snooker is treated like a pariah by sections of the media who simply refuse to recognise its popularity or, for that matter, the personalities who play it or the skill required to compete at the top level.
Part of the problem is that, in Britain, snooker is in opposition with its own past. Snooker was so successful in the 1980s that lazy journalists find it easy to fill columns by citing comparisons, ignoring the changed television and cultural landscape.
I can well imagine several are already getting ready to roll out the old clichés when the 30th anniversary of the Taylor-Davis black ball final is celebrated in April. The BBC website has even stated it will be ‘live blogging’ the last frame – and may not be joking.
Except, the people turning out in large numbers at Ally Pally next week aren’t thinking about the ‘good old days’, they’re thinking about now. Because snooker in 2015 is in a much healthier state than it was 30 years ago. There are more tournaments, more players, more countries either staging events or wishing to and a much bigger global television audience.
The UK is not just part of snooker’s past, it has a part to play in its future and it isn’t parochialism to say so.
At the same time, the sport needs to continue to spread its wings globally, exploring those territories where there is interest, both financial and in terms of audiences.
China remains part of that equation but it cannot be taken for granted that it will provide the same level of playing opportunities in the future than it does at present.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.