By Adrian Hill
Never has the sound of balls being potted on baize been more popular. Snooker has not only recovered in its UK heartland, but has become one of the most popular pastimes in the Far East and, specifically, the world’s most populous nation.
China has been gripped by the game for a while now and the country’s leading exponent, Ding Junhui, becoming the first Asian player to reach the world championship final has taken it to another level.
210 million Chinese watched their hero in his match against eventual champion, Englishman Mark Selby, at the Crucible in Sheffield. The afternoon sessions were watched by more than 45 million in China, the highest sports audiences for post-prime time programmes this year. The total global audience for the tournament was over 300 million.
This massive interest creates opportunities for sales and the figures are so mind boggling that it has made UK manufacturers push parochialism aside.
“It was a fantastic world championship,” Stuart Gardiner, senior account manager at Strachan cloth, Simonis cloth and Aramith balls, says. “It would have been even better if Ding had won it, but his performance cannot do anything other than help.”
It’s not just China that’s fallen in love with the sport. One of the first tournaments of the new 2016/17 season is the Indian Open in Hyderabad on July 5-9. The country where the sport is said to have been created in the 19th century by British army officers is one of the new boom areas almost 150 years later.
Gardiner adds: “We are seeing growth in India, Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East. These areas are younger versions of China in terms of snooker’s development, but in terms of Asia it all started in Thailand with James Wattana’s success in the 1990s.”
If Wattana was the trailblazer, Ding has been the man who has cemented snooker’s position in Asia and led to a string of promising players coming onto the circuit from his country.
Market in China
“China is so vast, it’s hugely significant for cue sports in general, not just snooker,” explains Gardiner. “Their Black Eight pool game is probably double the size of snooker in popularity. It’s been a perfect storm. Snooker was in the doldrums, now not a month goes by without snooker being on TV somewhere in the world.
“We align ourselves with a number of major table manufacturers, such as Star, Joy Billiards and, in the UK, Thurston. They all want us and it’s mutually beneficial. We tend to deal at the top end of the market. In Asia there are hundreds of thousands of tables, but only the leading clubs use our cloth. They can tell the difference - better run, increased speed and better ball control. Everyone wants to play like Ronnie O’Sullivan on faster and faster cloths.”
“The China market is a huge one,” agrees Andrew Baker, marketing manager at BCE. “We have a good brand out there. We tend not to be used in the clubs, but sell tables to high net worth individuals. We have our own office in China. We always see a peak at this time of year, but have seen an even bigger peak this year.”
Market in Europe
The basis of the World Snooker tour are the ranking tournaments, events where players earn the points to establish their places in the pecking order. This season there are a record 18 with full ranking status, ending with the world championship final in May and starting 11 months earlier with the Riga Masters in Estonia - a region where the game is growing fast.
Mainland Europe followed Asia in sitting up and taking notice of snooker and this was reflected by the decision of TV network Eurosport to cover a variety of tournaments on the world tour in 2003.
In April the channel signed a new 10-year deal with World Snooker, including live rights to 18 tournaments per season, running through to the end of 2025/26. Visibility is everything to any sport and the agreement is a significant boon to the industry.
“We’ve seen pockets of growth in Europe, the Baltic states in particular,” Gardiner confirms. “Europe in general is a bit flat at the moment, but in Germany there is massive interest and it’s also building in Bulgaria and Romania.”
Other events in Europe coming up next season include the German Masters, which attracts the biggest crowds of any tournament on the circuit to Berlin’s 3,800 capacity Tempodrom arena. The tour will also visit Gibraltar and Romania.
“There’s also the Snooker Legends exhibition tournament in Germany, involving many famous players of the past, which are always sold out,” Baker says. “There’s an appetite for snooker. There have been changes at World Snooker that have been well documented and so far it has all been positive.”
The appetite is still there, but the diet is different. The days of bustling snooker clubs in every town in the UK are long gone.
“The clubs have been struggling over the last few years,” Baker says. “In terms of sales in the UK, the vast majority are home tables, the wooden bed versions under £300. 80 per cent of our tables sold in the UK are pool tables, 10 years ago it was the opposite. What we are seeing is cue sales increasing and an increase in the high end £5,000-£7,000 tables. Our strength is making top end snooker tables, hand made and hand finished.
“Most clubs buy on price and as long as it looks reasonable are not bothered, so we are not active in the club market.”
Snooker equipment does not get revisited by any bar the skilled players, who require pristine tools to do their job. The average player can make a cue last a lifetime and if you’re spending thousands of pounds on a table you want it to last and don’t want imperfections to spoil your fun.
Therefore, any perceived bad press is harmful to manufacturers. During the recent world championship there was controversy over one of the two tables used in the early stages. The balls were not behaving as they should for session after session, the players were frustrated and the TV commentators exasperated.
The table was deemed to be at fault. The dreaded kicks - a bad reaction between the cue ball and object ball making one or both leave the bed of the table and knock the ball the player aimed to be potted off line - were happening on a far more frequent basis than normal.
“The TV commentators kept saying: ‘The tables are not playing well’ and people then think it has something to do with the cloth - it hasn’t,” Gardiner claims. “Kicks are created by chalk dust from the cue tip and minute particles from the nap of the cloth. The electricity generated from striking the cue ball sucks these minute particles onto the ball.
“We are launching a new product next season that has been developed after 15-20 years of work. We think it will eliminate 90 per cent of kicks. This product earths and will dissipate the material from the balls into the atmosphere.”
Olympic Games inclusion
The current elephant in the snooker room is the Olympic Games. World Snooker is keen to make another bid for inclusion. Wouldn’t this be another game changer for a sedate sport in the midst of a whirlwind of change?
Andrew Baker, marketing manager at BCE, says: “We did a discussion on our Facebook page. We have 15,000 followers and the result was 50-50 on whether it was a good idea.
“I personally think it would be good, as long as it’s shown regularly on the TV coverage. It’s all about the coverage - if more people see it, more people are likely to buy.”
Stuart Gardiner, senior account manager at Strachan cloth, Simonis cloth and Aramith balls, says: “The Olympics is the holy grail. There are quite a few problems to sort out, though.
“Which cue sports do you go for? Do you select pool over China pool? Pyramids is the most popular game in Russia, then there’s snooker, but in the United States you only see snooker in Chinese areas and where there is a concentration of Canadians. Snooker is still so small over there, US pool dominates and is such as established sport.”