The quarter-finals of snooker’s World Championship features just one player from outside the United Kingdom – Neil Robertson, an Australian.
Snooker was invented in India in 1875 by British army officers taking shelter during the monsoon season. It became established as a professional sport in England in the early 20th century. Only Canada’s Cliff Thorburn, Ireland’s Ken Doherty and Robertson have broken the British stranglehold on the world title since it was first contested in 1927.
However, this traditionally British sport is starting to spread its wings globally, the ultimate target a place in the 2024 Olympics.
Republic of Ireland: 3
Hong Kong: 1
The circuit has expanded to include tournaments in Thailand, Canada, Dubai and Europe as snooker became big business on UK television. But it is only in recent years that a coherent strategy has been put in place to tap into the potential that exists in places where many are discovering the sport for the first time.
Snooker was dogged by mismanagement for decades but managed to get its act together in 2010 as an offer from Barry Hearn, who made his name as a manager and promoter in the 1980s, was accepted as he took over the game’s commercial rights.
Since his appointment, Hearn has increased the number of tournaments from seven to 32 – of which nine take place in China – and managed to increase the total prize-money from $5.9m to $14.3m while also strengthening the sport’s presence on global television.
Hearn also brought in Jason Ferguson, a former player, as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association and handed him the task of travelling the world, making new contacts and identifying possible markets for the game expansion.
“Snooker is going global, no doubt about that,” Ferguson told Al Jazeera. “We have an international network of 90 national governing bodies organising amateur tournaments. Our major events are broadcast to 80 countries and are watched by 450 million people.
“Snooker is regularly in the top ten of the most-watched sports in many countries and in some it’s second behind football,” added Ferguson whose trips to China have become so regular that he has learned to speak Mandarin.
Despite the lack of global participants on the circuit, Ferguson is keen to expand the reach of the sport, ensuring it reaches out to a greater audience.
We have an international network of 90 national governing bodies organising amateur tournaments. Our major events are broadcast to 80 countries and are watched by 450 million people
“We’re hoping to stage a major tournament in the Middle East. Qatar and Dubai are the two countries we are looking at with the former our favoured place because of the infrastructure there. This week I’ve had an enquiry about setting up a World Snooker Academy in Nigeria. In June we will stage our first professional event in Riga in Latvia and I think Eastern Europe will be the next big market for us. The current political climate isn’t helping but there is enthusiasm for snooker in Russia.”
The increase in the number of events has also added pressure on the players. But Ferguson believes that empowering players with the opportunity to pick and choose while also encouraging new talent to breed through will make the sport more accessible.
“Snooker is a land of opportunity, not just for established professionals but for players from different regions of the world. We want the amateur bodies to feed through their best players and make the tour more global in terms of its composition.
"It’s already 10% Chinese and in the future you’ll see more players from different countries.”
Meanwhile, there is a greater goal being pursued. Snooker is recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee and cue sports are part of the World Games, held every four years for sports yet to make their Olympic bow. The aim is to do just that.
“It’s my mission to get snooker into the Olympics. People say snooker will suffer because it isn’t physical but I’ve read the Olympic Charter from cover to cover and it’s very clear that its sports are about performance of the mind, body and will. The earliest Olympics we can get into will be 2024 and that’s our target.”
But despite the promise and the aim, what remains to be seen is whether all this activity will eventually filter down to the professional circuit itself which is still largely based in the UK and dominated by British players.
China’s Ding Junhui won five ranking titles in a season, equalling Stephen Hendry’s record that was set 23 years ago. However, he was beaten in the first round of the current World Championship leaving Doherty, Robertson and Hong Kong’s Marco Fu as the only non-British participants in the last-16. Two of those failed to make it to the quarter-finals.
It may take several years, even decades, for the make-up of the tour to shift from its current level of British dominance to be more representative of the interest which exists internationally.
Only then will snooker’s global transformation be complete.