In front of a hushed Beijing audience on April 2nd, snooker sensation Mark Selby played in the final match of the 2017 China Open. Coming back from a deficit, Selby edged out Mark Williams and won the tournament. When he won the final frame, the crowd gave Selby a round of enthusiastic applause and cheering.
Since its humble beginnings, snooker has always been a popular sport in the UK. In recent years, however, the identity of the game has begun to change as its popularity has spread to other countries—the primary being China. Will globalization destroy the unique UK culture that snooker has cultivated, or will it elevate the sport to new heights?
The UK’s Love of Snooker
Historically, snooker has been an English sport, even as it grew in popularity in countries like Ireland, Scotland, and Australia. Initially created in 1875 by a British officer stationed in India, snooker quickly grew to be a beloved sport in the UK.
In a short time, its popularity centered on Sheffield, England and its world-renowned Crucible Theatre. Sheffield was widely known as “Steel City,” and the gentleman’s game turned into a blue-collar sport for the working man.
The 1980s were the golden years, with players like Steve Davis, Alex Higgins, and Jimmy White captivating audiences with their unique styles of play. The quality of play was astounding, with matches like the 1985 World Snooker Championship, which was watched live on BBC2 by a record 18.5 million viewers.
Snooker’s popularity created a lively amateur scene in the UK that would go on to produce the next generation of snooker stars. That interest has since spread on around the world.
Passing of the Torch
While the game had seen flashes of interest in some countries, it didn’t translate into sustained success. The exception is China, where its popularity soon became firmly entrenched.
Snooker’s introduction to China was sort of an accident. The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) had planned to put their focus in Asia on Thailand, home of snooker player James Wattana.
Following Wattana’s success in the semi-finals of World Championships in 1993 and 1997, the WPBSA saw potential in opening a snooker academy in Bangkok to generate a grassroots interest in the country. From this academy came Ding Junhui, a young Chinese player who soon symbolized China’s rise to relevance within the sport.
Ding has won 12 ranking titles around the world and drawn an enormous following in China. During last year’s World Championship final, Ding claimed that at minimum, 100 million fans in China would tune in to watch him play in the tournament—an impressive number for any sport.
1500 snooker clubs have been built in Shanghai alone, with an additional 1200 built in Beijing. Many young Chinese prospects are coming onto the professional snooker scene, meaning that the rabid Chinese fanbase will only grow.
As the culture of snooker travels the globe, UK fans and players are worried that the UK will start having a hard time competing with other countries.
Snooker legend Steve Davis commented on the situation, saying “Snooker is becoming a very good export but we have to make sure it doesn’t wither in the UK. We have to fight hard to make sure we have enough top players.”
While China continues to churn out aspiring players, the UK’s professional scene is maintained mostly by the old guard. Young players from the UK are still arriving on the scene, but the number is small in comparison to China’s.
However, this globalization shouldn’t be seen as a loss for the UK. The sport has grown in popularity at an incredible rate, and while the game has lost a certain amount of that blue-collar charisma, the game’s cultural significance will always be associated with iconic arenas like the Crucible Theatre, and with legendary players who popularized the game.
The impressive globalization of snooker has also launched the game into Olympic consideration. Although it just missed the final selection for the 2020 Olympic games, the chairman of the WPBSA is confident that by 2024, the international significance of snooker will convince the International Olympic Committee that it is a worthy addition to the events.
The fears of snooker’s cultural demise in the face of globalization isn’t warranted. While the game’s golden years may have passed, a new dawn is rising through globalization as snooker gains international relevance.