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China

A Dying Sport In Britain, Snooker Finds A New High-Class Home In China

Nearly half the world's top snooker tournaments are now held in China, where prize money is much higher than in the sport's original home in Britain. But money alone doesn't explain snooker's newfound popularity with Ch

Billiards tables are popping up in China (Desmond Kavanagh)
Billiards tables are popping up in China (Desmond Kavanagh)
Zhu Chong

BEIJING - These days "outsourcing" is a nightmare word for Western politicians, as factories and their well-paid jobs disappear to the east. But when it comes to sports, some Western athletes have stars in their eyes when they gaze eastward. The latest such sport happens to be snooker.

The Haikou World Open was held on Hainan Island last week and the China Open is slated to be held in Beijing in two weeks, followed by several other top international tournaments. China now boasts hosting dibs on five of the 11 world-class competitions, with just three left in snooker's historic stronghold, Britain.

Virtually all the world's top players, includingJohn Higgins and Mark Selby, will be competing in China, where prize money is large. The Haikou challenge offers first-prize winnings of $118,000, more than double the just-finished Welsh Open.

Mark Selby put it very clearly. "I hope there will be a lot of world class snooker tournaments held in China. I'll consider settling and living here. And I'll learn Chinese." Almost every one of the world's top 16 snooker players has got a Chinese sponsor.

The "Cheapest Game"

In London, snooker rooms are slowly vanishing. In the Essex town where legendary player Ronnie "The Rocket" O'Sullivan hails from, there is only one snooker room left. Most snooker fans in Britain are over 60, with young people in the UK today opting for football, cricket, or tennis.

There are multiple reasons for the fading attraction for fans, including reluctance by television networks to follow live snooker matches, which can go on for seven or eight hours. And since 2005, when the World Snooker Association banned sponsorship by tobacco companies, the sport has been short of oxygen. Prize money is famously low: "It should be called the Cheapest Game," O'Sullivan says.

However, snooker seems to be suited to the Chinese. It does not involve physical confrontation, but rather emphasizes skill, dexterity, and wits. It is a game with a certain stamp of Chinese tradition, even if it was invented on the other side of the planet. Before the Communist takeover of China, the old pool hall was a seedy kind of place where playboys and bar girls hung out. It was also where gang killings took place, as described in "Midnight" by the Chinese novelist Mao Dun, or in the film "A Brighter Summer Day" by the Taiwanese director Edward Yang.

After 20 odd years of post-revolution interruption, the game regained its mass popularity in the late 1970s. Even though open-air pool tables are still low-end chaotic places, the popularity of the game is extending across society.

According to the data, China has as many as 60 million snooker amateurs, among which 25 million play it often. Nearly a million Chinese say they are at it every day.

Back to its gentlemanly roots

The timely appearance of Ding Junhui, China's most successful player ever, who has already compiled more than 200 century breaks (scoring 100 points or more during a game without missing a shot), has further promoted the development of snooker in the country.

Even before the appearance of Ding, the broadcasting of UK snooker tournaments, often late at night on the state-owned CCTV, had very high ratings. But it was not until Ding won the China Open championship in 2005 that the sport truly opened up across the Chinese market, as both the number of competitions and advertisement revenue increased.

Yao Ming's role in promoting the NBA in the Chinese market and Liu Xiang's promotion of track and field, plus the recent return of basketball to the Chinese market thanks to Jeremy Lin, are all excellent examples of the importance of a local sports star in promoting an athletic discipline. It simply allows for the local audience to have a sense of belonging.

"The decline of snooker in the UK and its rise in China also reflects the economic development of the two countries," says Gan Lian Tong, the sponsor of the Haikou World Open as well as the Vice-Chairman of Xingpai Group, a snooker equipment corporation. "With broadcasting and media promotion, the game is returning gradually to its elegant and gentlemanly roots in China. The pool rooms are shifting from the open streets to indoor sports facilities and even to posh clubs."

The sport profits from the fact that there is still relatively little development of professional sports in China, which means that the CCTV can devote hours to airing games.

When John Higgins and other players saw that China's state television would rather air a live snooker tournament at the expense of an ongoing football match, they couldn't believe their eyes. "This is unthinkable in Britain," the Scottish reigning world champion noted. "The probability of a snooker player appearing in advertising is about as high as buying a winning lotto ticket."

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Desmond Kavanagh

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