Will Sheffield’s World Snooker Championships relocate to China?

Ding Junhui. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe
Ding Junhui. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe
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It is hard to envisage a World Snooker Champion kissing the silver trophy and waving it aloft in front of a Chinese crowd.

But that has become a very real possibility in recent years, as the growth of snooker in the Far East has forced the sport to look beyond the intimate environs of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

Chinese crowd. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

Chinese crowd. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

Ever since the World Championship’s relocation in 1977, snooker has become synonymous with the 980-seater arena and, despite the rumours, it will most likely remain there.

That is according to World Snooker’s commercial director, Miles Pearce, who insists Sheffield will remain the sport’s traditional home for ‘a long, long time.’

Sitting down at a Chinese restaurant in London’s Leicester Square, Pearce orders a selection of delicacies and thanks the waitress in her native tongue. He spends three months a year in China, where he acts as their World Snooker representative.

“Xiexie,” he thanks her as she places pork, rice and dumplings on the table. Proficiently plucking at the neat parcels with chopsticks, he explains China will have to wait for snooker’s main course.

Dom Dale. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

Dom Dale. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

“We want to keep the Championships in Sheffield until we die,” the Yorkshire-born Canadian says.

“Although we’ve grown in the last five or six years, The Crucible has been one of the concrete bases for the sport.”

His words echo those of World Snooker’s Chairman, Barry Hearn, who is set on the role of The Crucible. Though the former boxing promoter has overseen radical changes to the sport’s landscape, the location of the World Championships will stay the same.

China, however, has gone snooker mad. A sport in need of renovation when Hearn took over from staunch traditionalist Sir Rodney Walker in 2011 is now in high demand, and the highest bidder is growing impatient. The third most covered sport behind the NBA and football, snooker is played regularly by more than 40 million people in China, where there is now a replica Crucible Theatre. Really.

Dominic Dale and Alan MacManus.Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

Dominic Dale and Alan MacManus.Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

“Their desire to host the event is very strong,” Pearce says.

“You’re fighting all the time against that desire because there’s a lot of heritage in our sport, which lies heavily in The Crucible.

“They have tremendous resources and passion – an expanding market – but our organisation gets frustrated because they want to buy in heritage. Heritage takes time.”

With established tournaments such as the Shanghai Masters and the China Open, Pearce underlines the importance of developing these before hosting snooker’s pinnacle event.

Ding Junhui. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

Ding Junhui. Image: World Snooker/Tai Chengzhe

“We always remind the Chinese that they’ve got some great tournaments – the Open and the Shanghai have been around for over a decade,” he says.

“These events are more popular than the International Championship, despite being shorter and having lower prize money. Their heritage is building too.”

There is no questioning China’s blossoming relationship with snooker, but why snooker? This game is so far removed from popular physical sports in the Far East.

Pearce explains: “The Chinese love psychological games and foreign products - snooker is a luxury.

“They view snooker as the English gentleman’s game: they like the dress code and they like the way players call fouls.”

If there’s one factor against China, it’s a ticking clock. Whilst the Championships continue to be a success in the UK, it’s hard to envisage the proposed relocation.

“There are ‘moments’ at The Crucible each year,” Pearce explains.

“As the sport grows more internationally, the more people look to the best moments Sheffield has produced.”

Whilst the sport’s governing body has a strong bond with Sheffield, many of the players on the professional circuit feel less attached to the UK.

Former Shanghai Masters Champion Dominic Dale argued the relocation of the Worlds to China would be a justified move, talking ahead of his second round match at the UK Championships.

The Welshman took a break from the practice tables in York to advocate the possibility of a new chapter in snooker history, whilst acknowledging loyalty to The Crucible.

“I wouldn’t have any objections to the Championships being held in China. Snooker is so popular there now, it’s on the curriculum with table tennis,” Dale said.

“The culture is very different but experiencing their lifestyle is amazing for any player.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with China and I always wanted to go there at some point in my life. Then, winning the Shanghai was unbelievable.”

Dale cannot, however, deny the nostalgia of Sheffield, where there have been 20 champions in 38 years. Having reached the quarter-finals there in 2000, the Welshman is also an advocate of snooker’s South Yorkshire home.

“Sheffield holds some sentimental value,” the 44-year-old acknowledged.

“It’s so different to any other snooker city in the UK – players are immediately recognised.

“To recreate The Crucible’s atmosphere in China would be impossible.”

Despite great progress, the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association, CBSA, have acknowledged any movement of the Championships will take time. The governing body kept their cards close to their chest.

“We have no special expectations of hosting the World Snooker Championships in the near future,” a spokesman for the CBSA said.

“However, our objective is to host elite events. Both the China Open and Shanghai Masters have been held in China for 10 years and the focus needs to continue in improving the event level.”

Whether the tournament moves or stays, competition can only be good for the sport.

“It’s healthy to compete like this in a relationship and it’s good to know what the other competitor is doing or thinking,” Pearce says.

“At the same time, this competition fosters friendships. We’re creating opportunities for both sides.”

Niceties aside, Sheffield wants to hold onto this tournament and China wants to take it.

Consider The Crucible as a seasoned pro, with solid safety play and smooth break building, and China as an eager youngster who attacks at every opportunity. World Snooker continues to back the veteran. The youngster has been recognised, but winning over the crowd may take years of persistence.