Ronnie O’Sullivan last week revealed his intentions with regards to returning to snooker after a lengthy absence, hoping to defend his World Championship title. Unfortunately, his comeback couldn’t arrive in time to revive interest in the sport in the eyes of the Chinese public.
Extremely low crowd levels were a major problem throughout the 2013 Haikou World Open, a Chinese world ranking tournament, but they weren’t the only problem. The entire week has been peppered by outside agents combined with a mediocre week of snooker that has created a PR disaster for World Snooker.
When the crowd did manage to reach levels slightly above “empty”, they didn’t seem to know exactly how to behave. Snooker is a quiet, leisurely sport (one reason why I’d struggle to watch it live) that demands the utmost patience with long frames and a requirement to stay quiet. I don’t expect to hear the referee continuously lecture spectators and threaten them to throw out, nor should the professionals expect to be put off by people shuffling between seats in their line of vision. By the end of the week, local hopefuls in the form of Ding Junhui, Marco Fu of Hong Kong and promising wildcard Lu Haotian were all out and the paying public just decided to stay away anyway.
People were quickly outnumbered by flies. I’m not sure what the Chinese equivalent of the RSPCA is, or even if there is one, but I’d be surprised if they hadn’t started up a campaign to protect flies from swift death at the hands of angry snooker players. Not that they seem to be close to extinction, nor should they have been swarming through a professional snooker arena. It’s an ugly, unwelcome sight that would surely never make its way into the Crucible later this year.
Still, let’s bring this back to snooker. Fans may have been staying away because the level of skill exhibited by the seeds was poor at best. Safety shots left several inches adrift, easily pottable shots not even making it to the jaws of a pocket (not that I could do better, you understand) – even the top, top players like Judd Trump and John Higgins failed to really set the poor tables alight. It was both a blessing, then, and a curse that it was left to Mark Allen to defend his title with a 10-4 win over Matthew Stevens.
Allen was one of the few players during the tournament (alongside Mark Selby, perhaps) that seemed to be enjoying his snooker. Exuberant trick shots are something that gets a paying audience’s blood flowing and Allen’s speedy, not-taking-the-hard-way-out efforts were certainly in that vein. In a time where titles are increasingly hard to retain and there are no truly dominant players, Mark Allen’s double win must be all the more satisfying for the organisation that completely revamped the ranking schedule a few years back.
Or, it would have been, if it hadn’t have been Mark Allen. At last year’s Haikou World Open, the first time the World Open had been held in China, Allen was fined £1,000 for tearing into the country, tweeting: “Journey a nightmare. People are ignorant. Place stinks. Arena’s rubbish, tables poor, food is horrendous. Other than that I love China.” Now, this entire blog might sound like a thinly-veiled attack on China and its current non-Olympic state, but Allen’s complaints, that he later apologised for, still don’t appear to have addressed a year later. Allen has been filmed saying that he has a much better relationship with China now but, opinions on the food and the pong aside, the tables were of poor quality this year, the arenas are lifeless, empty husks whilst the visitors that do go don’t entirely seem to ‘get’ snooker. His comments certainly won’t have been welcome and probably didn’t endear the renegade Northern Irishman and his fellow Brit tourists to China, but these large voices of dissent may only grow in years to come.
Why try forcing snooker onto China, or forcing China into snooker? There’s only one Chinese player in the top 16 and two (if you count Hong Kong) in the top 32. Persist with the country and they might get more but why place all your eggs into one disinterested basket. If the crowds ain’t coming, take the sport to another crowd. Nobody wants an all-British top 16, so promote the sport more across Europe, the USA and Australia. If the crowds still don’t shape up and behave, maybe there is no hope for snooker’s global domination.