Sport: Snooker’s Shifting Empire
In China’s second city in the clammy heat of August, thousands of people line the streets to watch an elaborate opening ceremony of snooker’s Shanghai Masters.
Professional players from all over the world who might not even attract a second glance in their homelands, fend off autograph hunters as they stroll along a red carpet leading to the East Asia Grand Stage, a vast indoor arena which earlier in the year hosted Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones but is now adorned with posters of Ding Junhui, the golden child of snooker in the People’s Republic.
Snooker’s popularity in China is a recent phenomenon. The gregarious promoter Barry Hearn staged several invitation events in the East in the late 1980s, leading the sport’s governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, to run a series of professional ranking tournaments in China in the 1990s.
But it wasn’t until the emergence of Ding Junhui that snooker took hold of the nation’s consciousness. This prodigious youngster from Jiangsu Province, who in his childhood lived with his parents in a rented room when they sold their house in order to fund his snooker training, made the first repayment on that investment in 2002: he became the youngest ever winner of the World Under-21 Championship at the age of fifteen.
In 2005, Ding won his first professional tournament, beating former World Champions such as Peter Ebdon, Ken Doherty and Stephen Hendry to land the China Open title in Beijing. A staggering 110 million people watched the final against Hendry on China’s national sports channel CCTV5 – by far the biggest TV audience ever recorded for a snooker match.
Ding, who went on to take two more major titles the following year, becoming the youngest player ever to win three ranking events, is now rated China’s third most famous sportsman; after the gigantic NBA basketball player Yao Ming and the 110m hurdles world record holder Liu Xiang.
Just ten years ago, a Beijing doctor was given odds of 500-1 when he placed a bet on a Chinese player becoming World Champion by 2010. Now, Ding alone is rated at 7-1 for the 2008 title. And there are many younger players following in his footsteps; already six of the 96 players on the world professional circuit are Chinese, and experts predict that within five years that number could increase to thirty.
The commercial possibilities arising from China’s snooker explosion are massive. Ronnie O’Sullivan, twice World Champion, said recently that Ding could do for snooker what Tiger Woods has done for golf and Roger Federer for tennis. In Woods’ first decade as a professional, prize money on the USPGA Tour doubled, in line with an equivalent increase in the value of the sport’s commercial rights.
Sponsors for the Shanghai Masters were not hard to find. The tournament had 14 commercial partners including title sponsor Roewe – a car manufacturer comparable to BMW.
The snooker boom that China is now witnessing bears comparison to that in Britain in the early 1980s. Such is football’s prevalence now that it is hard to believe that, back then, snooker was Britain’s biggest sport.
Snooker and TV
It first came to television screens in 1969 when David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, introduced snooker because he wanted something with bright and varied colours to showcase the advent of colour television. A weekly hour-long programme called Pot Black became hugely popular, and over the next ten years longer tournaments were set up and the professional circuit came into being.
The famous 1985 World final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis, which Taylor won 18-17 on the final black, was watched by a peak of 18.5 million people at 12.20am, smashing records for the highest figure for a sporting event and the highest for any channel after midnight. It remains the highest audience ever on BBC2.
The likes of Davis, Taylor, Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Ray Reardon and Terry Griffiths were household names throughout Britain, and they reaped rewards as tobacco behemoths such as Imperial and Gallagher poured cash into sponsorship deals.
What is it about snooker that can grab such a vast following within a short time span? The two key factors are the nature of the game itself and the characters who take part.
Unlike football where long periods of interplay are punctuated by a release of tension with the uncertain event of a goal, snooker offers a gradual build-up of excitement through the development of a match, frequently leading to a dramatic finish with both players struggling to reach the winning line first.
Snooker is a game which requires enormous skill – Ronnie’s O’Sullivan record 147 maximum break achieved in little over five minutes is as good an example of genius as can be found in sport. It also requires mental toughness and strategic nous – tactical exchanges draw comparisons with chess. The most successful players are those who can remain focussed focus under intense pressure – a capacity which becomes more important than perfect technique.
In her most recent novel, The Post Birthday World, Lionel Shriver based one of her key characters on Jimmy White. She herself says of what drew her to snooker, “I like the strategic element, . . . the necessity of having to think several shots in advance. I find the colours of the game satisfying – bright, vibrant, with bold contrasts. Naturally, as a fiction writer, I love the dramatic element, since there’s a way in which every frame tells a story. And I love the sound of snooker, the sharp, resonant report of balls in contact – the ringing crack of a distance pot, or the vitreous click-click of a delicate plant. Having snooker percolating in the background is calming, kind on the nerves.”
But calm it is not when it’s in the foreground. Unlike most sports, in snooker the object ball is still when it is struck, and the player has virtually unlimited time to decide which shot to play, and then to play it, in contrast to football, tennis, cricket or rugby, where the player receives the ball at pace and reacts instinctively. The more time there is to think, the more time there is to think of what can go wrong. And when a player cracks mentally, there are no team mates to hide behind – only the intense glare of the TV lights and cameras which reveal every twitch.
In 1991, journeyman pro Mike Hallett had the chance to win the biggest title – and pay cheque – of his career when he led Stephen Hendry 8-2 in the Masters final. Faced with such a momentous opportunity, he crumbled, allowing Hendry, the greatest pressure player of all time, to reel in his lead and eventually triumph 9-8. To watch Hallett’s psychological collapse was fascinating, and the player himself described the experience as “like having open heart surgery in public.”
Then there are the characters. Snooker invites a natural tendency for the viewer to develop an allegiance to a particular player, which can be every bit as strong as support for a football or rugby team. BBC trailers for major tournament often feature the strapline ‘Who’s your favourite?’ In this context, players can be roughly divided into two categories: daring crowd-pleasers capable of spectacular attacking shots and rapid break-building (such as White, O’Sullivan and Alex Higgins), and tactical, more disciplined, match-players who play with the sole target of winning (such as Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and John Higgins). The former category, of course, has greater public following, the latter, of course, wins most of the major titles.
The relationship between fans and idols is key to snooker’s status. Despite being invented by British officers in 19th century colonial India (who, bored by persistent rain, experimented with various different games on billiard tables), snooker is a working man’s game. Its hot-beds are found within lower income districts of cities such as Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow (which has produced the current top two ranked players in the world), London and Liverpool as well as urban centres of Yorkshire and Essex and the old mining towns of South Wales. It is relatively cheap to play, with no clothing kit or equipment to be purchased because all clubs have ‘rack’ cues and chalk available for free use. It can be enjoyed by competitors of all ages and abilities: a superior player can simply give a “start” of an agreed number of points to his opponent. And of course there is the opportunity to socialise, smoke and drink while playing or watching.
The most popular remain in touch with their roots. They do not become affected, distant pin-ups with PR agents and investment portfolios as they do in football. They are real people with real frailties, with problems that fans can relate to. Alex Higgins, arguably the most nihilistic sportsman ever, was a drunk and a womaniser and has successfully battled cancer. Jimmy White has a weakness for drinking and gambling and openly admits that he has often gone into a major final after an all-night binge. It’s no surprise, then, that he has lost all six of the World finals he has contested. Ronnie O’Sullivan suffers from manic depression and desperately misses his father, who is fifteen years into a life sentence, having stabbed a rival gangster to death in an East London nightclub.
Novelist Shriver is particularly fascinated by White, describing him as: “the best approximation we are likely to find of a proper working-class hero – the ultimate near-miss, an emblem not only of our triumphs but of our shortcomings, a stand-in for the millions who go to bed mumbling, ‘I coulda been a contender.’… Since all celebrities are proxies for ourselves, it’s much more fun to project yourself on to a Jack the Lad than an eat-all-his-mushy-peas type who goes to bed early.”
Snooker in Britain
Over the past two decades, snooker’s popularity in Britain has dwindled. Live attendances and TV audiences have declined. As peaks for major finals struggle to break 3 million, the oft-quoted 1985 figure of 18.5 million has become an albatross around the neck of administrators forced to battle against nostalgic statistics.
The reasons for this decline are complex and hard to pinpoint. The proliferation of leisure activities, including the internet and satellite television (it’s easy to forget that in 1985 there were only four channels to choose between), has left every form of entertainment fighting over smaller sections of the pie. Arguably, top players now take a more professional approach and the eat-all-his-mushy-peas types have become the norm – in fact this is true of every sport. Smoking and drinking during a match are banned. Though there are a multitude of gifted players coming through the ranks, and many of those have strong personalities, there’s no one to pick up the baton from Higgins, White and O’Sullivan as the next People’s Champion.
Or could it be that the flare of interest in the 1980s was in itself ephemeral, and that the public has gradually become tired of the game? Wherever in the world a tournament is played, it’s played on the same 12 x 6 foot tables, with the same 22 balls, the same rules and the same basic strategies. “If you watch snooker for long enough,” says BBC commentator Clive Everton, “you’ll find that everything that can happen, will happen.”
Back to business
Hence World Snooker, the commercial arm of the governing body, has in recent years, particularly since the hammer blow of the banning of tobacco advertising, looked to overseas markets in order to revive commercial growth. In 2003, a new deal was signed with Eurosport which, for the first time, brought live snooker to over 100 million homes in 58 territories across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. There are now dramatic surges of popularity in Germany, Poland, Romania and Bahrain, with television figures out-stripping those for golf and tennis. All those nations need is an idol, a Ding Junhui, and the snooker revolution taking place in China could be repeated elsewhere.