'Hugely damaging' – Why moving World Championship from Crucible would rip heart and soul out of snooker
Judd Trump has argued the World Championship must move away from its spiritual home of the Crucible Theatre to a bigger venue for the progression of the sport, but such a concept is fraught with more risk than merely moving location. Desmond Kane explains why retaining the sport's most coveted event in Sheffield is vital for future generations and protecting a unique heritage.
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Mick McManus performing a Boston Crab back in the day would have been less animated than the former Masters champion turned erudite TV analyst, who launched into an impassioned defence of the Sheffield venue amid a phalanx of table fitters putting the finishing touches to the fabled set-up for the opening stages.
"It needs an historic, prestigious event there, maybe put the UK Championship there but the Worlds needs to go to a bigger venue, for me.
The pinnacle of the sport shouldn’t be held back spectator-wise, there should be thousands! If you can sell the Masters for 2,200 people, the Worlds should be getting 5,000 at a massive stadium or arena, not a little theatre.
"I know it brings the excitement with the crowd so close, it makes you more nervous but I think they could do that on a bigger scale somewhere else.
"It’s the World Championship, everyone’s going to be excited, everyone’s gearing up for it all year, but I think it’s just a little bit held back... it’s such a special event with so much history behind it, but unless you were around in that era... I don’t think kids these days go back and watch the 1978 or 1980 final.
"I know I don’t."
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While the natural crowd-pleaser Trump continues to be a valid, valuable and considered contributor to the sport's future direction of travel, this one is a hoary old tale of creative thinking post-pandemic.
Writing off the Crucible as "a little theatre" is like Frank Sinatra opting against the Odeon of Herodes Atticus because it did not have a roof.
The fabric of any sport lies in its history and tradition, the moments and the memories that future generations can aspire to.
Snooker is fortunate that it has found a revered resting place in Sheffield, a formidable and friendly Steel City that enjoys its reputation as the home of snooker as much as Wednesday and United.
'You play snooker?'
Handling the Crucible over 17 exacting and eccentric days is part of the challenge for any aspiring world champion to overcome. All the greats tend to find a way.
To deprive Sheffield of the World Championship would be like suggesting Wimbledon would be better off without tennis or St Andrews without golf. In seeking new and richer pastures, it would be a hugely damaging act of folly for snooker to seek a quick buck elsewhere.
Not merely because it would pluck the heart and soul out of the sport. It would rip wide open the fabric of snooker more than miscuing a deep screw shot.
While the Juddernaut might not be interested in the 1980 final, he should take note of the 1981 climax that saw Steve Davis clasp the first of his six world final triumphs with an 18-12 win over Doug Mountjoy as the all-knowing Barry Hearn – Davis' ebullient manager before his recent 12-year stint as World Snooker Tour chairman – raced into the arena to embrace his mate.
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"When I got an award off the Royal Family, Prince Philip said to me, “You play snooker? It’s the Crucible isn’t it?," said O'Sullivan about receiving his MBE in 2016.
He doesn’t know me. He probably thought, Who’s this f***ing piece of s*** in my house? But he knows about the Crucible.
"We need this place. Maybe an entrepreneur will come in, the Jeff Bezos of the UK, and have a bit of nostalgia for the Crucible and get this place open again. Place like this never die."
Bjorn Borg edging out John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final with wooden rackets over five sets or Tom Watson emerging victorious from his 'Duel in the Sun' with fellow golf giant Jack Nicklaus around Turnberry at the 1977 Open Championship will be forever commemorated and celebrated as enduring, epic memories of those respective sports.
The Crucible houses snooker's only major whatever else is suggested. At some point in the future, Trump's 2019 win over John Higgins will become part of the Bayeux Tapestry of snooker balls.
It appears trendy to suggest professional sport should be appealing to a younger demographic these days, but would a new breed of prospective snooker fans know if the World Championship was being held in Sheffield in South Yorkshire or Tasmania?
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Such misguided philosophies obscure the truth: an exciting, interesting, intriguing product sells itself to all generations without engaging in an act of commercial self-harm. Such gimmicks are unnecessary.
Promoting exciting shots, interviews and magical moments on social media encourages a conversation, but they are merely snap shots of a wider narrative in the deep furnace of competition.
'Dwindling attention spans'
Tampering with the traditions of the sport's blue-chip event to suit dwindling attention spans is hardly likely to lead to the palace of wisdom. It would be the ultimate act of dumbing down for no apparent reason.
Experiment with the length of matches, dress code, shot times and walk-on music at smaller events such as the successful second coming of the British Open last month after a 17-year hiatus, but the World Championship should remain sacrosanct.
Fans take a selfie outside of the venue on day seventeen of the Betfred World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre on May 3, 2021 in Sheffield, England.
Image credit: Eurosport
All the public ever see on TV is a table and the Crucible works perfectly for the digital age which is what is required for a sport seemingly invented for the small screen when Pot Black was first broadcast in 1969.
The 17 days of snooker in April and May each year on the BBC and Eurosport is not merely a tournament, but a celebration of the green baize that the public can engage with at their own leisure.
It is a glorious two-and-a-half week advert for the sport. Imagine the World Championship was moved to Asia? It would be deprived of the oxygen of free-to-air coverage in the UK plus the time difference would kill its origins.
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It would disappear from the minds of millions as quickly as Jim Carrey departing The Truman Show.
In a world where competitive sports battle for mainstream viewing set against Premier League football, snooker enjoys a key advantage over sports such as golf and cricket in that it still freely available for the masses to enjoy. They know where it is, when it is and when they can expect it. Which on Eurosport and Quest these days is quite a staggering amount of premium content.
What appears to make commercial sense does not always apply to the unique funnel of professional snooker.
World Snooker have an agreement that will see the tournament continue at the Crucible until 2027 with the free-to-air broadcasting deal in place until 2024. It is not going anywhere any time soon. And probably for some time afterwards.
"There is going to be a hell of a row if anyone tries to change that. It's history – one thing you can't mess with," said Hearn while also suggesting he would purchase the venue if it was in dire straits amid the pandemic.
"It is a wonderful venue and part of snooker’s history."
The Crucible is the backdrop to snooker's version of The Hunger Games where the golden memories of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, Ray Reardon, Joe Johnson, Stephen Hendry, Peter Ebdon, Shaun Murphy, Ken Doherty, Mark Williams and Stuart Bingham among other cue ball contortionists are forever preserved in technicolor.
The list goes on and on, a who’s who of men who ruled the world, handed down through the decades to create the mythical status which the World Championship in televised Babylon has enjoyed since 1977.
There is more than one route out of potting perdition. It is made for grinders and speed merchants, dreamers and realists. It is the ultimate test of technique and concentration with no other fixtures across the season played out over three days rather than three hours. Time and game management is part of the conundrum with all four semi-finalists needing to win 35 frames to lift the trophy. Can you overcome yourself as much as the balls?
The Crucible might be cramped behind the scenes and could do with another thousand seats in the main auditorium, but it could add another 10,000 seats and still not satisfy demand for the World Championship. How many fans can actually comfortably watch a snooker match?
Being perched on the back row of the Masters at Alexandra Palace in London with over 2,000 diehards is stretching the limits to how many people can gather around a 12 x 6 ft table without needing a periscope to enjoy what is going on.
The old Wembley Conference Centre housed 2,500 fans between 1979 and 2006, but was demolished 15 years ago during the renovation of Wembley Stadium. The Wembley Arena staged the tournament between 2007 and 2011. Despite housing 4,000 fans, it could not touch the Conference Centre for atmosphere.
One of Hearn's first acts as World Snooker Tour chairman was to rehouse the Masters in Ally Pally, a ploy that has worked well in preserving the traditions of the sport's most celebrated non-ranking tournament.
He has similarly and wisely ring-fenced the sport's biggest event in Sheffield. The Crucible is imperfectly perfect, earning a special place in the psychology of British sport over the past six decades.
The Crucible Theatre is not merely a venue, it forms the cornerstone of snooker's story and development from darkened working men's clubs in the 1970s to a multi-million worldwide televised success story these days.
Dennis Taylor's 18-17 final black ball win over Davis was witnessed by 18.5 million viewers in 1985, still a record audience for BBC2 beyond midnight. In the land of make believe, it also housed the fastest 147 in history when O'Sullivan made his never-to-be-replicated maximum in five minutes and eight seconds in 1997.
'Nothing like it'
Yet is easy to forget how close snooker came to the abyss in the not so naughty noughties.
Murphy's rise to become world champion at the Crucible at odds of 150-1 in 2005 also coincided with the sport being seemingly mortally wounded by a lack of investment.
When UK tobacco companies were banned from sponsoring sporting events in the UK, snooker appeared to be in ruins despite attracting a vast audience of viewers even when the sport was in the doldrums with only six ranking events in the 2005/06 season.
When England won the Ashes in 2005 and cricket was broadcast by terrestrial television on Channel 4, eight sessions of snooker over the year attracted a larger audience than the peak viewing figures at any point during that Ashes series.
Be careful what you wish for. The BDO World Darts Championship was staged by the Lakeside Country Club in Surrey between 1986 until 2019, but ran into financial difficulties when it moved to the O2 last year. It is no more, a relic from a bygone age.
Barry Hearn at the Crucible in Sheffield.
Image credit: Eurosport
Snooker is ahead of the curve courtesy of the hard work carried out by Barry Hearn over the past decade in buffeting it from the financial storms that rage. It remains buoyant in a saturated market.
“There’s over 500 million people around the world watching this little 900-seater venue," he said ahead of last year's Covid-19 delayed World Championship. "There’s really nothing like it. And with fans there, it’s going to be something to cherish.”
This is not a debate between modernisers or traditionalists, but merely one of common sense. Staying put allows expansion.
Attempting to dislodge the World Championship from the Crucible Theatre would be an act of sporting sacrilege.
The Northern Ireland Open is the third ranking event of the season and is LIVE on Eurosport and Quest between October 9-17 as part of the Home Nations Series including the English Open, Scottish Open and Welsh Open