After Ronnie O’Sullivan’s shock interview about the poor standard of modern-day snooker, the question is raised as to why the sport seems to be declining.
On 9 August, Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan shocked the world of snooker yet again. Not because of his triumphant final session against Ding Junhui in the second round of the world championship (where he recorded breaks of above 50 in each of the seven frames), but because of his flippant post-match interview.
Rather than celebrating his victory and the achievement of progressing to another major quarter-final, O’Sullivan took aim at his fellow competitors: “If you look at the younger players coming through, they aren’t that good really. Most would probably do well as half-decent amateurs, but not even that. They are so bad. A lot of them, you’ve got to lose an arm and leg to fall outside of the top 50… it’s that bad.” The startled BBC interviewer tried to salvage the conversation remarking “it’s not that bad, is it?”, to which O’Sullivan smirked and simply replied: “No, it is”.
Rather than sparking debate, most pundits simply dismissed the claims: Steve Davis, a six-time world champion countered by arguing that the old guard of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins have simply gotten better with age, and that we have to wait until the players coming through at the moment reach their mid-thirties. Prior to the tournament, pundits like Alan McManus told the Metro that Ronnie will suffer from a lack of table time before the world championships; he was ranked 16th in the world, he hadn’t bothered to enter the Gibraltar Open, and had also missed the players and tour championships. So, which is it? Surely, McManus should have been right - in no other sport would the eventual world champion not have played competitively for months. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo just dusting himself off every year for the champions league final and still putting in a man of the match display. This does make you question Davis’ remarks: the youngsters are on the circuit, week in week out, and still cannot compete with the old guard.
Since 1990, there have only been four world championship finals that have not included either O’Sullivan, Selby, Hendry, Williams or Higgins. The two players that made the final aged under 30 since the turn of the century, Ding Junghui and Judd Trump, were touted as the next superstars and, although they have both had very successful careers so far, they are yet to win a world championship. Currently, there are also only three players aged under 30 inside the world top 20, a fact all too apparent with the clear lack of new names in the latter stages of major tournaments.
Despite the lack of new talent viewing, figures are on the rise. The semi-final between O’Sullivan and Selby amassed a record 2.27 million viewers on BBC 2. The WST Chairman Barry Hearn stated: “We are delighted to see these figures, as they show that snooker continues to be a massively popular sport for viewers on the BBC. And the numbers are up on last year … The British public’s love of snooker is an ever-flourishing relationship.” Whilst it was inevitable that viewing figures would rise this year, as the tournament was played during lockdown and viewers literally had a choice between a rerun of Eastenders from the 90s, Antiques Roadshow or the snooker, this is actually a continuing trend with a 15% increase between 2013 and 2019. However, the viewership in the UK is still a far cry from the 18.5 million - a third of the nation - that tuned in to watch Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor in 1985.
These two oddities - growing viewership and a lack of new blood - are not mutually exclusive. Arguably, British snooker is currently trapped in a false sense of security; the continuing success of players with established fanbases has increased viewership after a low point at the turn of the century - a bubble that will undoubtedly be burst when O’Sullivan and co. retire.
The major lifeline for snooker is growth internationally; viewership abroad is increasing, largely concentrated in China. Hearn stated: “The figures in China are off the scale”, however the country has been tipped to be the next big snooker nation for decades but this is yet to fully materialise. The BBC reported in a documentary on the matter that 70 million people play cue sports in China every week. Currently, there are eight Chinese players in the top 50 - all of whom are under 35. This would have been unimaginable 40 years ago.
Sports always find a way of adapting, especially when they’re run by a Hearn. So rather than modern snooker fading into the periphery, in the next decade, it’s finally set to move east.