TThirteen years ago, the current number one pool player in the world, Ronnie O’Sullivan, probably did not think that in 2022 he would participate in what could be the biggest tournament in the history of the sport. At that time, he was predicting the imminent demise of the pool game.
In 2009, O’Sullivan said that professional snooker, a historically British cue-and-ball sport in which players in bowties and waistcoats compete in intense silence, was in “a downward spiral”. “He just feels bored,” he said, as tournament sponsors and prize money dwindled. The following year, sportswriter Barney Ronay agreed in a Guardian article titled ‘Why Snooker Won’t Survive the Decade’. Ronay predicted that by 2020, snooker could once again be an amateur sport.
How wrong they were. The Hong Kong Masters, which kicked off on Thursday and ends on Sunday, is expected to set a new record for the largest live snooker audience in history, with up to 9,000 spectators flocking to the Hong Kong Coliseum to watch the final. The location of the record tournament in Hong Kong is perhaps an indication of how Asia has reinvigorated the uniquely British sport.
Asia’s Big Opportunity
Snooker was invented by a British Army officer stationed in India in 1875. In the 1930s, it was the most popular cue sport in the UK, according to Sky History TV. In 1985, a third of the UK population watched the World Championships, despite the fact that it went on past midnight. But its popularity began to wane in the 1990s. And snooker never really gained sustained traction in other parts of the world, with the best players hailing from Britain or Commonwealth countries.
That is, until Chinese player Ding Junhui burst onto the scene.
Read more: ‘Being number one is the goal.’ Chinese Ding Junhui faces the World Snooker Championship
After his father noticed his son’s talent in billiards, Ding was taken out of school to focus on playing billiards. When he was a teenager, he was sent to Sheffield, where the World Championships are held every year. When the young Ding took on seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry and won the 2005 China Open, “China won a figurehead and a model,” according to World Snooker, at a time that “became a catalyst for the rise of sports in China.
“All of a sudden the Chinese or the Asians thought it’s a game they can win,” says Django Fung, who manages several of the world’s top players and is director of Yello Marketing, which is an organizer of Hong Kong. tournament.
Newly crowned British champion Ding Junhui of China plays a shot during the 2005 China National Professional Snooker Qualifying Tournament in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China on December 22, 2005.
China Photos / Fake Pictures
By 2016, there were more snooker players in China than the rest of the world combined, according to Foreign Policy in Focus, and by 2018, China had the second-highest number of players on the world tour, behind only England. Today, there are more than 25 players from Hong Kong and mainland China on the world tour, out of a total of 130 players. Four other players are from Thailand.
World Snooker estimates that there are around 350 million snooker fans across Asia, where demographically, its fans are younger than in other regions; while 27% of snooker fans in the UK are aged 50 or under, 80% of fans in China are in that age range.
That has helped boost the sport in Asia. “There is a large proportion of Chinese players on the main tour,” says Fung. “They are young and they are doing well; some of the Chinese players are already winning tournaments at a young age, so we are attracting a different kind of audience,” he says, adding that snooker is now more popular in Asia than the rest of the world, at least in terms of the size of the audience, given the population of China and the region in general.
Snooker commentator David Hendon says the professional tour had become “quite dependent on the Asian market” before the pandemic. Around a third of the major events were held in Asia, although China’s zero covid policies have slowed things down. Hendon noted that the shift to more competition in Asia helped boost earnings for professional players, as tournaments held in China were especially lucrative. The China Open ranked second in prize money only to the World Championships.
Fung hopes that as soon as China’s borders are reopened, tournaments on the mainland can resume, so the sport’s popularity can continue to accelerate. “In a couple of years, I can see another 20 Chinese pros on the main tour,” he says. “The future is definitely going to be in Asia.”
Cue the next generation
Snooker no longer seems to be dying. “The only way is growth,” says Miles Pearce, World Snooker’s chief commercial officer, who says he is working with new broadcasters in places like Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. “We’re growing pretty well in our broadcast reach and obviously that’s doing great things for our event potential there.” He also points out that Asia’s first Q School, which allows players to qualify to play on the professional tour, was held in Bangkok in June.
Fung says that the Chinese government’s support has also helped foster the next generation of gamers. The Chinese Billiards & Snooker Association opened a billiards academy in Beijing in 2013, in collaboration with the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association., and similar academies have now opened across the country, he says.
World No. 1 Ronnie O’Sullivan gives a snooker lesson to Singapore’s national player Jaden Ong at the newly opened Ronnie O’Sullivan Academy in Singapore on June 13, 2022.
Roslan Rahman—AFP/Getty Images
In Hong Kong, Baniel Cheung co-founded the Master Snooker Academy for boys snooker school with Marco Fu, who is currently ranked 100th in the world. Cheung says that since it opened in 2020, his academy has trained hundreds of children to play pool, some as young as 4 years old.
And what were once considered the stifling traditions of an aging sport in need of a modern makeover are now attractive factors: “When kids wear a tuxedo, they look so smart. Parents love it,” says Cheung. “Football or soccer or badminton is already very common, and they really want to look for something that is special, that can also train their children with manners and critical thinking.”
O’Sullivan, who faces home crowd favorite Ng On-yee in his first match in Hong Kong on Friday, appears to have changed his tune about the future of snooker as well. In June, the seven-time world champion opened his own academy to train the sport’s future stars, not in London, where he lives, but in Singapore.
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