Snooker was once a staple of the British public — 18 million people in the UK tuned in to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the 1985 world final — but the sport has dwindled in popularity in the country. Snooker is flourishing overseas, particularly in Asia, and perhaps unsurprisingly, China is at the forefront of the trend.
Today, around 70 million people play cue sports in China each week. Aside from boasting potentially the world’s most exclusive venue, the Li Jun Billiards Club, along with it’s seven VIP rooms and yearly membership fee of $125,000, there is a hefty focus on engaging the country’s youth.
The sport is played in schools throughout the country and the best young snooker players come to live and train at the CBSA World Snooker Academy in Beijing. There are currently 30 pupils staying at the academy, aged six to 22, and they train all day. Practice starts at 9 a.m. and finishes at 5:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and mobile phones are locked away throughout the practise sessions, except during lunchtime. The aim is to get as many of the pupils as possible playing on the professional circuit.
The country’s approach to the sport is two-pronged, investment in players and in events. While China has hosted a number of different events across the country for the last 25-30 years, last November saw the first staging of the China Championship, in Guangzhou. Despite not yet being a full-ranking event (because of its infancy) it still offers the largest amount of prize money outside of the World Championships, with the winner picking up £200,000. For comparison, the winner of this year’s World Championships will pocket £375,000.
The World Championships started in 1927, but the modern era started in 1969 (when a knockout format was introduced). Since then, only three players outside of Great Britain have won the title, Canadian Cliff Thorburn in 1980, Ken Doherty (Ireland) in 1997 and Nathan Robertson of Australia in 2010. Ding Junhui became the first player from Asia to reach the final when he did so last year.
In each World Championship, 32 players qualify for the tournament proper. Historically dominated by players from the British Isles, five Chinese players are in Sheffield for this year’s competition, as well as Hong Kong’s Marco Fu and Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham. Of the 128 players on the professional tour, 17 are Chinese, with a further 12 from other parts of Asia. The sport is growing rapidly across the continent, and China is leading the way.
Junhui is undoubtedly the current star of Chinese snooker. The 30-year-old turned professional in 2003 after spending time in the UK to develop his game as a teenager. Currently ranked No. 6 in the world, he is aiming for World Championship glory in 2017. When he reached the final last year, 210 million people watched the match in his home country, and the sport is regularly shown on television by the national state broadcaster, CCTV.
Born in Yixing, Jiangsu province, Junhui, splits his time between China and Sheffield (where the World Championships have been held since 1977), and has done for the last decade. The city of Sheffield, and more specifically the Crucible Theatre, has become the historic “home” for world snooker. As it stands, the venue will continue to host the World Championships until 2027 according to the deal agreed between the venue and the the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), the governing body to World Snooker. The WPBSA is keen to extend that agreement beyond its current expiration, but chairman Barry Hearn is fully aware of the commercial opportunities available to the East.
Hearn, a veteran of sports promoting, helped orchestrate snooker’s heyday in the 80s, as well as working within boxing and football, and masterminding the astonishing surge in the popularity of darts over the last decade. Given his commercial nous, it’s not too unrealistic to imagine the sport’s premier event heading overseas. “I would think that in five years half of the top 32 players will be Chinese,” Hearn said. “Ding has inspired hundreds of thousands of Chinese snooker players and brought the game into the living rooms of the entire population.”
That population currently stands at 1.357 billion, and as with so many other industries, not just in sport, it would only take the slightest interest for China to realize some of it’s potential. In snooker, it’s well on its way.