Zhao Songrui, who coaches snooker in the western city of Chengdu, said a Chinese world champion would be a “big boost” for a country that has embraced tail sports like no other. As the sport’s flagship event begins on Saturday, he may soon be making his wish come true.
The annual World Snooker Championship will be held at its traditional British headquarters over the next two weeks, but by far the biggest interest will be China, where the big-name matches will be watched by a delighted audience from Shanghai to Shenzhen.
The rapid growth of snooker in China adds to what is already a significant business opportunity in the world’s most populous country. It is estimated that 50 million players regularly take a queue in China.
The number of Chinese who watch major events on television has eclipsed the populations of most European countries for decades. It is estimated that 150 million people will follow this year’s state-owned video surveillance competition, with an even larger audience following the action on mobile phones during the season.
“We’re seeing absolutely massive amounts of viewers online,” said Miles Pearce, commercial director of World Snooker, which hosts global tournaments for the sport. “Two or three years ago, [mobile viewing] was not even a deal for us. Now I think we’re going to have 500 million videos watched online in China alone. “
About a third of the world snooker tour’s events take place in China, including the Shanghai Masters and Evergrande China Championship, which is sponsored by one of the country’s largest real estate developers.
Pearce said the sport is looking to host even more events in the country when coronavirus-related travel restrictions are relaxed. He pointed to lucrative partnerships with Chinese companies, including Xingpai, a manufacturer of the sport’s distinctive green tables.
The rise of snooker echoes a broader push by the Chinese government to increase its presence in global sport, particularly soccer, although the country’s league has come under financial pressure due to its ties to major conglomerates. .
A hallmark of the game in China has been the large number of young players. A specialized academy in Beijing, opened in 2013 and supported by former world champion Steve Davis, has propelled a host of young players onto the world stage.
Hopes for the Chinese World Championship this year will rest on the shoulders of Yan Bingtao, the 21-year-old snooker prodigy who won the prestigious Masters tournament in January. There is also veteran Ding Junhui, the first Chinese player to gain worldwide recognition in the sport.
Twenty-three Chinese, out of 128 in total, are taking part in the world tour while five of the 32 contenders for this year’s world championship are from China.
The rise of elite snooker players is only part of the growth of cue sports in China, itself part of a period of intense urbanization and a dramatic change in the possibilities of recreation which is still far from being completed.
Snooker, which originated in the British Army in colonial India in the 19th century, and the similar game of billiards have become popular pastimes in China’s rapidly changing culture. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai can boast of having hundreds of billiard and pool halls.
In an air-conditioned basement pool club in Beijing, players check their phones between table visits.
A young professional from Hebei province and her friend – who said they were going to tune in to watch pool this weekend – noted that the environment was far from when they were playing at outdoor tables. in the 1990s, even in the depths of winter.
“None of these are around these days yet,” one said, eyeing the next shot.
Pearce warned that there was no certainty that China would dominate the sport despite the investment, pointing to the game’s expansion into other new markets such as India, its popularity in Germany and across Europe. ‘Is, as well as its enduring strength in the UK. “I think there is a lot of competition,” he said.
Still, he agreed that it would be “very, very big” for snooker in China if Yan could win the tournament.
The boss of a Shanghai snooker club doubted the youngster had what it takes to claim a first world crown for China, but was more effusive about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the six-time winner and champion in title which begins its defense on Saturday. “He’s just cool. . . I watch him play and I learned a lot, ”he said.
Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai