Shadow of Saudi Arabia looms as World Snooker Championship faces toughest decision

Mark Allen goes for a pot in the championship last year during a match against Mark Selby (Getty)
Mark Allen goes for a pot in the championship last year during a match against Mark Selby (Getty)

The forthcoming World Snooker Championship should be centred around Ronnie O’Sullivan trying to win a modern-era record eighth title or Belgian Luca Brecel attempting to follow last year’s stunning triumph with a repeat performance, but instead large shadows loom over the sport.

The first comes from Saudi Arabia and is cast directly on the Crucible Theatre. Almost every year for at least the past decade, the question of whether the World Championship should move away from the Crucible, or even Sheffield completely, has reared its head – with varying degrees of heft behind it.

The debate generally falls into two distinct, easily delineated camps. History vs future. Romanticism vs pragmatism. Nostalgia vs ambition.

On one hand, the history of snooker is inextricably woven into the fabric of the Crucible. Since the tournament moved there in 1977, the venue has become the spiritual home of the sport. Its greatest moments have taken place within those walls. From a tearful Alex Higgins beckoning for his baby to Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis in the black-ball final with 18.5 million people watching around the UK. From Stephen Hendry’s ruthless dominance in consistently crushing people’s champion Jimmy White to Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump’s never-ending hug. Players dream of playing there, fans from around the world make the annual pilgrimage to snooker’s Mecca and the pressure exerted by that tightly-packed arena creates diamonds. Every year, Snooker’s World Championship is the greatest drama the theatre puts on.

On the other hand, the venue is objectively not fit for purpose in the year 2024. The World Snooker Tour (WST) could easily sell out its 980 capacity three times over, the backstage facilities are old and decaying, everything about the place is too small and there’s no room to have any sort of lucrative corporate experience that could enrich the sport. And having the “World” Championship of a global sport in the same South Yorkshire venue every year is arguably needlessly parochial.

From a business perspective, the right decision would be to cash in and move to a location more befitting of such a mammoth event. But, despite what those who run things would have you believe, sport has never been purely a business proposition – it thrives by tapping into the emotional and the romantic. Fans become attached to players, teams and venues and invest just as much with their hearts as with their brains. That special connection is what makes sport unique and to forget that risks losing that loyalty.

The Crucible Theatre has hosted the championships since 1977 (Getty Images)
The Crucible Theatre has hosted the championships since 1977 (Getty Images)

Any decision to leave the Crucible would be seismic and cannot be made for purely financial reasons. Plenty of sports have placed greed above everything else and used it as the sole motivation in decision-making, putting themselves into a serious hole.

The current broadcast rights, and thus the contract to host the World Championship at the Crucible Theatre runs until 2027 – 50 years after the event first went to the venue. Whether the tournament has a 51st year there is genuinely up in the air. As a city, Sheffield benefits hugely from the tournament. In fact, Sheffield City Council pay WST a staging fee for the event due to the estimated £3m extra revenue it brings in tourism every year.

Rumours of a new, bigger venue being built to host the tournament, perhaps even on the same site as the current Crucible, are swirling. This would seemingly be a perfect solution for all parties but such discussions have been happening for years. Until ground is broken on a building site, it’s hard to get too excited. What is for sure, is that a long-term solution – whether that be snooker staying or going from Sheffield – needs to be found.

The reason the calls to move the World Championship are so much louder this year is because of Saudi Arabia. As the latest aspect of their sportswashing venture, the country has set its sights on snooker – successfully hosting the invitational Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker complete with “golden ball” and possible maximum 167 break last month and a full ranking event for all 128 professional players slated for the summer. It is already being marketed as snooker’s “fourth major” and will have a prize pot of more than £2m, making it the second most lucrative event for players after the World Championship.

Snooker has joined the likes of boxing in being targeted by Saudi Arabian influence (Getty Images)
Snooker has joined the likes of boxing in being targeted by Saudi Arabian influence (Getty Images)

WST also released a statement earlier this month announcing that Riyadh Season has become an “official partner” of the World Snooker Championship, increasing speculation that the tournament would move to the Middle East, while O’Sullivan was signed up to a three-year ambassadorial agreement by Saudi Arabia, guaranteeing he will play every event in the country, go on coaching trips there and open a Ronnie O’Sullivan Snooker Academy.

Like any good ambassador being handsomely paid, “the Rocket” has immediately launched into a media campaign to get the World Championship to Saudi, although the crux of his argument – which currently appears to be that courtesy cars would be laid on for the players and the food would be good – may need some work – he has also taken shots at Sheffield and the Crucible.

The other shadow currently being cast over snooker is the prospect of a breakaway tour, possibly funded by China. This is very much still at the vicious rumour stage but players have occasionally been dropping opaque hints at something rumbling on in the background and it’s another storyline to keep an eye on over the coming weeks. Perhaps snooker would be advised to look what has happened to the sport of golf in that regard.

The beauty of the World Championship, of course, is that the quality and drama reliably produced on the baize has always ended up overshadowing any wider narratives – be those rumours of a Crucible departure, match-fixing scandals, possible takeovers or fake Sheikh stings.

Let’s hope that’s the case again this year and, from a purely sporting perspective, this is set up to be a fascinating tournament. O’Sullivan’s quest to break Hendry’s record and win an almost-unthinkable eighth world title is captivating and his opening match on Wednesday against the talented, attacking 22-year-old Jackson Page should be explosively entertaining.

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s long hug with Judd Trump after winning his seventh world title in 2022 went down as an iconic Crucible moment (AFP via Getty Images)
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s long hug with Judd Trump after winning his seventh world title in 2022 went down as an iconic Crucible moment (AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Brecel brilliantly blitzed his way to the title 12 months ago but the Belgian will have to shrug off indifferent form so far this season and also faces the “Crucible curse” that has never seen a first-time winner repeat the trick the following year at the legendary theatre.

Aside from O’Sullivan, Judd Trump has been the player of the season with five ranking titles to his name this year and will be desperate to add a second World Championship to his CV, while Mark Allen has entered the very top tier of players over the past 18 months and four-time world champion Mark Selby is a man made for the Crucible, although he has had a tough time off the table recently with his wife Vicky battling breast cancer and mental health struggles of his own.

That’s without even mentioning former world champions such as John Higgins, Mark Williams and Shaun Murphy being in the draw, Ding Junhui trying to become the first Chinese world champion or younger talents such as last year’s surprise semi-finalist Si Jiahui and perennial ranking event nearly-man Jack Lisowski being set to light up the tournament.

These 17 days in spring never disappoint and the bright light of snooker’s greatest stars will surely drive the shadows away once more, for a while at least. But deep down, it feels like snooker’s day of reckoning is coming over the horizon.