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Long Form Snooker

The future of the Crucible

We can’t have snooker without the Crucible, can we?

 

Let’s go back in history. Before the “Crucible era” began, the World Championship was a largely haphazard affair. In the 40’s and 50’s, they would play up to best of 145 frames and, ridiculously, would keep on playing the whole amount of frames long after one player had mathematically won… Australian Horace Lindrum racking up the biggest win with a 94-49 stroll in the park over New Zealand’s Clark McConachy in front of a presumably thrilled crowd in Manchester being a real ‘highlight’.

 

Over time, some bright spark had the idea of reducing it to a trifling best of 73 (first to 37 if you must know) sprint. The matches got slightly shorter – in fact Ray Reardon edged out home favourite Eddie Charlton on a basketball court in Melbourne in a 31-30 thriller in 1975. Anyone who ever saw Eddie Charlton play can tell you that 61 frames against him would have been pretty attritional stuff.

 

There were some logistical challenges… the year before the Crucible era started, Alex Higgins lost to Ray Reardon: the match started in Middlesbrough and ended in Manchester. Quite often the World Championship wasn’t the final tournament of the year. After beating Higgins to win said world title, Ray Reardon went to Prestatyn to win the Pontins Professional before he and Higgins met again in the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds for the presumably prestigious Canadian Club Masters (Higgins emerged victorious in an event sponsored by a whiskey company).

 

Then promoter Mike Watterson’s wife went to see a play in Sheffield’s Crucible. She told her husband it would probably be alright to play snooker. Bosh, next thing you know the World Championships is there in 1977 and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed the players seem to agree that the Crucible, certainly in the one-table set up, is a perfectly nice place to play a bit of snooker. It’s what the whole season has built up to. The audience are next to you, the drama is intense. You’re playing on the exact same bit of the Earth as where Jimmy missed that black, where Dennis wagged his finger, where Alex Higgins shouted for his baby.

 

The issues seem to come with the fact that, backstage, it’s a city-centre theatre which was not built with becoming an elite sports venue in mind. It was built to be a theatre, to host Shakespeare and the like. The backstage areas of theatres are rarely glamorous (I spent more than my fair share of time in them all over the North of England in my childhood, as my Dad was an orchestral musician). The main efforts of the design go into the stage and the seating, ie the bit the public can see and will pay for.  Backstage areas are largely cold, draughty and functional. If anyone has seen Spinal Tap get lost looking for the stage, that’s not far off what even the best theatres in the country can look like behind the scenes.

 

I’ve never personally been backstage at the Crucible but the footage we see tells a similar story to what I am familiar with – breeze blocks, small dressing rooms (see Ronnie stood up hanging out of his window having a fag in his documentary), visible pipework. To be honest I’m amazed there’s room for a practice table at all, let alone a few. The fact there’s room for a media centre is quite astonishing too, and this is before we get to all the kit and rigging required for the 2 TV stations operating from there.

 

All of this in itself isn’t unique, a lot of snooker venues aren’t exactly glamorous behind the scenes – I’ve been to the Barnsley Metrodome where I took a wrong turn looking for the toilet and ended up in the changing room of a pirate-themed swimming pool. With the greatest of respect to the Barnsley Metrodome, which is a perfectly good venue for a family day out, it didn’t exactly say “glamourous sporting event”. The Masters at Ally Pally is an example of getting more and more seats in to a more iconic venue to create a “wonderful atmosphere”, but suffers from the same moans from the players about the backstage area, largely due to it being immediately after the 2 week booze-up that is the darts World Championships, also promoted by Matchroom Sports, so let’s not kid ourselves that snooker is their main priority when negotiating with Alexandra Palace.

 

Of course since they first started playing at the Crucible, there are now “better” venues than a small-ish theatre in Sheffield. They’ll have mini leisure centre-sized floors ‘backstage’ just for practice tables. They’ll have valet parking. They’ll have a chef on. Or maybe if not all snooker-specific places, certainly just ‘bigger venues’ perhaps more suited to putting on ‘events’ rather than plays. Things like underground parking are a prime example of something people prefer to have. Ronnie himself alluded to the Wembley Conference Centre as a good place to play because you could go in underground, get on the practice table, go to a dressing room and get on with playing without seeing anybody you didn’t want to see. This isn’t a criticism of the people of Sheffield or the Crucible fans, but it does make it hard for someone to prepare properly if they have to walk past a sea of autograph hunters every time they want to just walk in the door. Let’s not lie, the hotels or conference centres that could host a championship, wherever they may be, will be palatial in comparison for the players.

 

To be perfectly honest, you could say the writing is on the wall – quite literally. As if you look at all the sponsor boards around the perimeter of the tables, on the partition and behind the players in the WST media room, you’ll see alongside Cazoo (who I thought were about to go bust) a purple circle with Riyadh Season written on it. I strongly doubt the Saudis are sponsoring the event in Sheffield for a bit of a laugh, they’re doing it because presumably it moving to them is a pretty much a done-deal.

 

But there’s also thornier issues about the reality of playing what we know as the World Championship somewhere else. We hear that they got 9,000 in for the Hong Kong Masters final but they can only get 900 in the Crucible, and we could fill the Crucible 10 times over. Well that’s great, but so what really?

 

In Sheffield it’s the fact that everyone’s on top of you that makes it, um, a Crucible. And this makes it quite hard to win 71 frames there. And to make it even harder, you have to win 36 of those frames in the opening three rounds with a big partition wall in the middle, where you might be on a shot only for the audience on the opposite side of the wall to applaud. Even in the ‘leisure centre’ venues where there are 4 or more tables playing simultaneously, this particular situation is unique to the Crucible… and thus makes it the ultimate test.

 

Remove the partition (because a partition at a bigger venue is going to need to be about the size of the Hoover Dam if they decided to do 2 tables) and you arguably make it easier for the ‘big name’ players used to one-TV table setups and thus lessen the chances of any upsets. Let’s say we went halvers and moved the entire event to a 4,500 seater ‘centre court’ style place somewhere. The winner won’t have done it like Hendry, Davis, Selby or Ronnie had to – with walls and distractions for the first half of the tournament followed by a second half with 900-odd pairs of eyes visible from every corner of the table watching your every move.

 

Is this mythical 4,500 seater place with a big underground private car park and personal chefs going to be happy hosting the event for 17 days? With it all being a one-table set-up, will the event actually need to be longer to get through the frames? Due to humidity do we have to abandon morning and afternoon sessions altogether? Will they be happy to take the 4 rounds of qualifying that go on for 2 weeks before that, which are also hosted in Sheffield albeit not at the Crucible, too?

 

Usually WST’s answer to such trifling concerns is to truncate the tournament altogether, indeed there are some who still don’t see the UK Championship as a proper Major because historically it was all multi-session whereas now it’s best of 11 to the final. Snooker has various peculiarities but the length of the World Championship is perhaps my favourite. Imagine if cricket had a domestic season where everyone played Twenty20 all year but then to find out who is best they have a 5 test series with every day played back to back… and by the way the prize money for the massive test series is over double what can be achieved by winning anything else that season.

 

That slightly ludicrous analogy is not far off how snooker sits – other than the Tour Championship and Shanghai Masters, there is literally no other tournament on the calendar with long-format (multi-session) matches outside of the final, and even some finals aren’t long-format. As an extreme example, Ronnie pocketed £250k in Riyadh for winning 13 frames across three matches of the whole tournament. Then the World Championships comes along… Ronnie had to win 13 frames against Ryan Day to make it through the second round. The semi finals are a 3-day marathon. It’s beautifully bonkers and is the reason it’s so hard to win and so cherished by the snooker hardcore…

 

If the only solution to get to a ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ venue is to truncate the tournament, has the winner REALLY won the World Championship?

 

Let’s say there’s no need to truncate the tournament, someone is happy to host for a month or two. That’s an expensive bit of venue hire… which will have to be recouped by sponsors and broadcast rights. And then you have to know where your biggest viewing audience is – if this venue is in China then the Chinese audience will of course go up but the UK one will plummet to just the die-hards. The Chinese TV audience will be heavily reliant on Chinese players doing well, the most recent major winners amongst them are currently all serving betting-related bans.

 

No disrespect to Kyren Wilson and Jak Jones, but I can’t imagine people are staying up until the middle of the night in Beijing to watch them play their final session on Bank Holiday Monday. If Si Jiahui had made it, well it’s a completely different kettle of fish. So of course you put it in Saudi Arabia, bearing in mind you’ll definitely need to move the session times due to the heat, and you’ll probably be able to keep both sides of the viewing populace happy… The Saudi promoters might even cover a lot of your costs in the hope that none of the journalists notice that women aren’t allowed to wear certain items of clothing. They’ll probably put a massive prize pot up too, brilliant.

 

Then got to keep 32 snooker players (and probably their families/entourage) happy, 4 of them for the best part of a month in a very conservative part of the world where there’s not a right lot to do if you want to ‘let off steam’, something Luca Brecel said was important to him on that memorable run to winning the championship.  

 

Furthermore, is the size of the Crucible venue not actually an advantage, certainly in the opening stages? The 9000 people who made it to the Hong Kong Masters final were watching a little known lad called Ronnie O’Sullivan playing hometown favourite Marco Fu, who had just beaten John Higgins in the semi final with a 147 in the decider. It was a promoter’s dream final, a complete ‘one-off’ to not only have the capacity but also the two players that would be guaranteed to sell it out. Would 9,000 people in either Riyadh, Shanghai, Hong Kong really be showing up to a first round tie of Zhang Anda v Jak Jones? Or would you end up with an embarrassing load of empty seats that you simply don’t get at the Crucible because it’s easy to sell out every session.

 

All this nonsense about asking Sheffield City Council to ‘do something’ is bananas. Have you seen what councils in England are cutting back on? They haven’t got enough money to cut the grass let alone build a brand spanking new snooker-friendly theatre, purely because Barry Hearn asked them to. Even if they did agree to a frankly unlikely schedule of works, it would take years and the WSC would still have to go on tour anyway, so I can see Sheffield Council quite happy to call their bluff as a hiatus is inevitable even if they agree.

 

I personally think what will happen is that the contract will end in 2027 and Matchroom will take the World Championship on a little tour with a shortened format, perhaps qualifiers in England and only last 16/last 32 go to the final stages. They’ll almost certainly go to Riyadh, if that doesn’t work maybe they’ll try China. Maybe it’ll be a tremendous success, maybe Ronnie will wait to win number 8 and 9 in both to enable it to claim it’s part of the history of the sport.

 

But... Ronnie or Judd wins £2m, there were no plucky outsiders because being marooned from your family with only your coach for company for a month is bloody hard work (which is why I believe the Chinese players have struggled to win at the Crucible) and everyone else says it wasn’t as good as the Crucible.

 

The BBC don’t broadcast it and it turns out the silent majority of casual fans who like the snooker on Bank Holiday Monday can’t be bothered to buy DAZN, so viewing figures are shambolic and this has knock on effects for the other BBC/Eurosport events. During the tournament in Riyadh, the players get a bit dismayed that they can’t get a beer for the next 3 weeks. Milkins sneaks a hipflask in and causes a diplomatic incident (it has happened before). Someone (let’s hypothetically call him Hossein Vafaei) says something vaguely political, it gets shared on Twitter/X/whatever, they get their specially-issued visa cancelled and sent home. We never had these problems in Sheffield lads.

 

There’s a huge myth that the Saudi PIF are some sort of silly ‘moneybags’ style show-off mid-life crisis fella throwing their cash around like there’s no tomorrow. They aren’t – they have accountants just like everybody else, and even their grand projects are sometimes massively cut back to reality, such as the Line which was announced as a 100km long megacity that would revolutionise how we think about urban living but is now going to be, errr, just over a mile long. Granted, putting on a snooker tournament will be a drop in the bucket cost wise, but the beancounters will still be keeping an eye on it. If the tourist numbers don’t increase in line with the expenditure (which is why the Saudis are doing all this, as part of their ‘Vision 2030’ to be tourist destination rather than an oil oligarchy), they’ll drop snooker like a stone and get back to focussing on bigger sports like golf and tennis.

 

However WST aren’t daft, they know all this. Concurrent to this sideshow also probably move one of the prestigious ITV events to the Crucible – maybe the Champion of Champions or the Tour Championship, they may even come up with a whole new tournament called ‘The Crucible Championship’ or something. It won’t be the World Championship but it’ll become the fourth major. It sells out every session the final pulls in the viewers because, as it turns out, people just like to watch ‘snooker at the Crucible’.

And if snooker in Saudi pulls in the cash, the exact same negotiation will be taking place for the darts World Championship when the Ally Pally contract is up. The Crucible could feasibly end up with the Masters…

 

TL;DR It’ll take an extraordinary effort to move what we know as the Worlds to anywhere in it’s current form. It might move somewhere else, it won’t be the real World Championship, and there’ll always be snooker in Sheffield

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