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Snooker looks to cue up more big breaks in China

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDing Junhui is the leading Chinese snooker player

Millions of snooker fans in China will have groaned when their hero Ding Junhui made a mess of a potential 147 maximum break against Mark Davis at the World Snooker Championships earlier this week.

However, it will have been unlikely to dim their affection for the third seed, or the sport, with millions again sitting up to watch TV through the night as he takes on John Higgins in the second round.

Indeed, according to World Snooker - the global commercial arm of the sport - the game is third only to NBA basketball and football in terms of sports television viewing in the country.

Interest has been steadily growing since snooker impresario Barry Hearn, who now owns 51% of World Snooker, and playing legend Steve Davis started promoting the game in China back in the 1990s.

Shanghai club growth

"It was definitely an aim of ours to grow the TV audience in China, as a means of promoting snooker, and players like Ding Junhui and [Hong Kong's] Marco Fu have certainly helped," says Miles Pearce, World Snooker commercial director.

"Viewing figures are still growing," he adds, pointing out that the head of Chinese TV sports channel CCTV-5 fell in love with snooker when he was studying in Cardiff, Wales.

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image captionFive-times world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan signs autographs for Chinese fans

Pearce says snooker is mostly followed by a white-collar fan-base, aged from 16 to 34, who see snooker as "aspirational rather then elitist", and are based around major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. They cannot fail to have been impressed by Ding's estimated £2.25m snooker earnings to date.

But as well as supporting home-grown players they give Westerners like Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump the star-treatment too.

Meanwhile, Pearce says there are an estimated 60 million regular players in China, and, while the number of snooker clubs across the country is hard to determine, in Shanghai the number has gone from 200 in 2008 to 1,500 now.

At grass-roots level, World Snooker has joined with the Chinese snooker association in setting up an academy in Beijing, and has introduced schools programmes and amateur leagues.

World Cup stage

On the global stage, Pearce says that China is at the forefront of a wider move to open up the game internationally, including in India, Malaysia and Thailand.

"Snooker has been historically a very UK-focused sport. Encouraging overseas players to come in at the top level has been important to us in terms of promoting snooker globally," says the 44-year-old Canadian, who has been at World Snooker for eight years.

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image captionThere are a number of of major ranking tournaments in China each year

There have been seven tournaments in China on the 2014-15 season calendar, including the four world ranking events - the Wuxi Classic, the China Open in Beijing, the Shanghai Masters, and the International Championship in Chengdu. Each of these offered a minimum £450,000 in prize monies.

That tournament number will be cut to six in 2015-16 as the snooker World Cup is played in Wuxi - home of Ding Junhui - instead of the Classic.

"The World Cup will definitely give snooker another boost in China," says Pearce, who previously worked for the Premier League, Major League Baseball, Sky Interactive and Orange Sport.

"In China they are very patriotic, they love to see their own national sporting talent do well on the global stage, so this gives them an opportunity to potentially shine in front of the world."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA new wave of young snooker talent is poised to break through

Each nation will have one team of two players, but China as hosts will have two teams. One pairing will comprise Ding and another player, and Pearce says it would be "amazing" if the China Billiard & Snooker Association (CBSA) chose a couple of their up-and-coming teenage players for the second pair.

"Ding is a tremendous talent but there is lots of very young talent coming through too," says Pearce, with the top youngsters honing their talents at the 39-table academy in Beijing.

Olympic bid

Snooker in China would receive a further boost should cue sports be successful in their bid to be included as an Olympic sport, ahead of the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Jason Ferguson, chairman of governing body the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), has been lobbying IOC members this week.

"It would be absolutely massive for us from a sports business perspective," says Pearce. "Snooker in China has stood on its own feet and gone further than most other sports there. But is has very little government funding - unlike other Olympic sports. We have not had a penny from the Chinese government."

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image captionJason Ferguson is campaigning to have snooker included as an Olympic sport

China has a track-record of backing Olympic sports, so as well as raising the sport's profile and popularity further, inclusion would also probably mean financial support from the government.

It could also bring further business backing from Chinese firms, with partners to date including Bank of Beijing, Bank of Communications OTO, and car giant BAIC.

One route not being followed for now, is transferring the World Championship - held in Sheffield for the past 40 years - to China, with supremo Hearn reportedly saying it would not happen on his watch.

'Challenges'

And, despite the growth potential in China, respected snooker blogger Matt Huart, who runs ProSnookerBlog, says there are challenges in the country.

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image captionJudd Trump in action at the International Championship in Chengdu

"It looks to me that it has become more of a challenge for snooker in the past year or two than perhaps it was three or so years ago," he says. "The market in China is as challenging as it has been in the past decade."

He says one challenge has come from the launch and promotion of rival cue sport Chinese Pool (also known as Chinese Eight Ball), a variation on the Western form of pool, which has had the backing of Scottish snooker star Stephen Hendry.

And he says predictions made a decade ago about Chinese players dominating the player rankings have not come to fruition, with "no-one coming close to Ding".

At present Ding is the only Chinese player in the top 16, with Liang Wenbo and Xiao Guodong ranked 21 and 22, while Hong Kong's Marco Fu is number 11.

However, Pearce, who recalls seeing a snooker table being used enthusiastically in the middle of a village street in China, remains optimistic.

"I would be surprised if we did not have a Chinese world champion in the next 10 years," he says.

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