The event lasts as long as the Summer Olympic Games.
Whisper it quietly for fear of the traditionalist’s wrath, but snooker’s quest for its holy grail at the World Snooker Championship every year is too long.
There is just one more day left until the 2021 edition of the sport’s blue-riband event commences at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
In truth, the tournament in its entirety began many days ago – a dozen in fact – with the beginning of the qualifying rounds at the English Institute of Sport.
Add another 17 days at the venue stages and it takes the whole package to just shy of a full month – a cosmic amount of time spent on the annual calendar.
For many years, I was one of the staunchest advocates of keeping the World Championship the same, protecting the customs of what is of course a magnificent sporting spectacle.
However, in recent times I have found myself more and more torn between the values of tradition and the equal merits for potential change.
Clive Everton famously said of the World Snooker Championship that it is the ‘Marathon of the Mind’ – a poetic and accurate analogy to describe the 17-day pendulum of relentless highs and lows at the Crucible Theatre.
That reference was likely made with the players specifically in mind, but for fans too this tournament is a mental slog like no other.
It’s a pilgrimage, people often preach around this time of year, and it might as well be something religious with the efforts that some go to in order to watch each and every session across the 17 days of action.
While this is something heavenly for the hardcore aficionado, is snooker actually doing itself a disservice by continuing with an old format that doesn’t really match up evenly with the tempo of the modern world?
Almost every other tournament on snooker’s schedule has ditched the use of multi-session matches until the final, which in turn is another debate in the balancing act of trying to please everyone.
The only exception is the Tour Championship, but even in that terrific tournament that was superbly won by Neil Robertson last month, matches were only two sessions in length and an outcome was relatively swiftly determined on the same day.
Only in the City of Steel do fortified battles potentially last for three or four sessions, helping to create the game’s “Ultimate Test”, but some, ridiculously in the case of second-round fixtures, take as many as three days to complete.
One of the charms of any edition at the Crucible is how the pendulum of an encounter can swing one way and then the other, with these respites in between bouts of play, often occurring overnight, providing a crucial element in a protagonist being able to outlast another.
But would this really change if the tournament was shortened a little? Would it really matter if, rather than sheer exhaustion, it was just tiredness felt by the end of it all?
The single worst day of any World Championship, without a shadow of a doubt, is the second Thursday when the first session of four gets under way for the semi-finals.
The fact that the penultimate round of the World Snooker Championship takes longer than the final itself to complete – three days to the final’s two – is an enormous indicator that the semi-finals, in particular, are too long.
Would reducing it by a session, and therefore a day, have that big of an impact that it ruins the overall spectacle for snooker supporters around the world?
It shouldn’t, and it wouldn’t, and one just has to look at the qualifiers in the last few days to gain an appreciation as to why.
Shortened from the best of 19 frames to the best of 11 – a decision that incurred venomous opposition from some sections – the first three rounds in the preliminaries were completed in one meaty session and there wasn’t any less tension or drama than there had been in the past.
In fact, there might even have been more edge-of-your-seat snooker on show with 27 clashes in those early stages lasting the full distance – contrasting interestingly with just one deciding frame on Judgement Day.
There isn’t any part of me suggesting that matches should be slashed to one session at the Crucible Theatre, but alterations can be made to freshen up a format that has remained pretty much identical for four decades.
The final’s target of 18 is an iconic test that doesn’t need to be tinkered with, but there’s definite scope to change the lengths of both the second round, which could be contested over 19 frames like round one, and the aforementioned semi-final hurdle, which could be transformed into a three-session affair lasting either 27 or 29 frames.
One of the reasons why the quarter-final stage is so loved is its compact, quick-paced, and easy-to-follow formula – four matches, three sessions, two days.
The world is a very different place to the way it was 40 years ago, and snooker’s status as a global form of entertainment is also radically changed.
An additional issue with the 17 days is that it results in the tournament finishing on the May Bank Holiday Monday.
We’re constantly being told that the international reach is greater than ever before, but how can the sport continue to alienate a huge potential audience on its biggest day of the year?
When I was growing up, I loved the unique situation of a major sporting event finishing on a Monday night, but as a travelled adult I find the whole thing utterly perplexing.
Yes, snooker can corner the market in the UK and Ireland with few other events – particularly football – on live during this time.
But with the Bank Holiday Monday only experienced across the UK and Ireland, so much of the snooker final is lost to millions of other people around the world.
Across mainland Europe, working fans in that region miss out entirely on the ever-crucial third session on Monday afternoon, and it’s even worse for the sport’s biggest market in Asia – notably China.
Time difference will always wreak havoc with potential viewership in any sport and it’s obviously impossible to please everyone.
It’s of course natural that supporters in the host nation will benefit the most from peak viewing times, but staging the final of your flagship prize at a time when so many will struggle to tune in does seem to defy logic.
Reducing the tournament even a little would open the door to allowing the final to at least conclude on a Sunday, as it did in 2020 when the World Championship was rescheduled to July and August.
Last week, Judd Trump was interviewed by the Metro and the world number one criticised several aspects of the game, suggesting snooker’s general image and marketing appeal needs a complete overhaul.
It’s always important to protect certain aspects of tradition – one just has to look at the mishandling of VAR in football for an example of how change can sometimes have an adverse effect.
Yet, there’s no point being so overprotective that you end up getting stuck “in a rut” either, a status Trump currently believes snooker finds itself in.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say it’s in a rut – indeed, the sport has generally been developed superbly well in the last decade by the likes of WST and WPBSA chairmen Barry Hearn and Jason Ferguson.
While Trump’s main gripes were with the dress code and the protection of the game’s older guard rather than the format of any particular tournament, the theme of his comments was consistent – snooker isn’t attractive enough to a younger audience.
It’s hard to argue with this point, and it’s equally difficult to defend the reasoning behind staging the sport’s most prestigious tournament over a staggering length in which the more casual fan – or even worse, a potential new follower – could lose interest as easily as they could get sucked in.
I don’t expect there to be many alterations any time soon in terms of the festivities at the Crucible, underlined perfectly at the recent qualifiers that were actually extended by two days to permit a wider-ranging array of coverage.
Yet more isn’t always better – long is sometimes too long – and even though I’m filled with the usual butterflies of excitement on the eve of the 2021 tournament, my gut is telling me that too long is precisely what the World Snooker Championship has now become.
I wouldn’t be opposed to the odd tweak but generally the fact that each champion has gone through a similar test is appealing. You do feel snookered out by the end of it but I will be watching the Seniors by the Thursday! Your suggestions to frame lengths are pretty reasonable anyway, nothing too radical.
We don’t want to go down the road of the UK Championship, though, as the reduction in frames hasn’t improved the viewing figures and it has slipped behind the Masters, for me, as the game’s second biggest tournament.
Yes snooker is in a ‘rut’, religiously holding on to many outdated ideas: an inadequate ranking system, a rigid 128-player tournament structure, a substandard venue for the World Championship, invitational tour cards for retired players, … This gives snooker the feel of a traditional British institution rather than a global competitive sport for the 21st century. I agree that finishing on a Monday is terrible for an international audience. I myself am currently working for a US bank, so I won’t be able to watch any of the final day live.
However, the format for the World Championship is probably OK, providing a comparative test. Actually, I’m mainly interested in following the progress of younger players. For me, the most compelling event of the season is the World Championship Qualifying with 11 tables in play (I normally book there for the whole 8 days). I would say the best-of-11 is too short for such an event. OK it may make for quicker drama but the standard is impacted. With best-of-19, both players can relax and find some rhythm: we get to see what they can do and the better player should win. Of course as a former player, I do greatly appreciate the skills of the top players, but it’s largely the same players I have been watching for years, even decades now. That’s also a problem snooker needs to address, but if anything the reverse is happening. Once again, we have the oldest set of participants for 40 years.
Where I do think an effort can be made is in broadcasting, which hasn’t moved with the times. Judd Trump is right about continual 1980’s nostalgia. Actually, I was born in 1972 and remember all of those matches vividly. But I’m now saturated and sick of it all. It’s an unsustainable strategy to sell snooker on that basis – it’s just lazy repetition. And it’s not just the BBC. But I don’t think dress-code is such a big issue.
This idea that coverage is saturated with nostalgia doesn’t wash with me. Dennis Taylor maybe harks back too much to the past but even he’s not saying it was better in his day. He’s a weak commentator but can still sense a genuine passion for the game in its current form.
The dress code debate is utter tedium. This idea a younger audience suddenly thinks snooker is sexier because they are wearing polo shirts is fanciful talk.
I think under Barry Hearn we are witnessing a more globalised sport. The pandemic has affected the trajectory but during his tenure we’ve had tournaments across many different countries and the global interest from a viewing perspective has risen markedly.
The reason we have a pretty ‘old’ set of participants again is that the newer breed of players are not raising the bar in terms of standard. The standard hit a peak in the 2000s and I believe it won’t be any higher in fifty years and probably beyond. There’s more strength in depth now but we will only see a change in snooker’s upper echelons once the likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins, Williams, Robertson and Selby decline. I find it hard to believe we will ever witness a new generation of players operating to a higher standard than what we’ve experienced in the last two decades.
Interesting question. I don’t personally think the World Championships is too long although it is an interesting point regarding the semi finals. Presumably you’d have to trim it down to a Bo29/27 format, certainly the latter could be 3x 9 frame sessions for television.
What I find weird, having watched snooker for years, is that some “best-of” numbers appear to be completely ignored and I can never quite work out why. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Bo15 match, for example. Even though it’s just a simple 8 frame first session and play-to-a-finish second session, with the possibility of someone finishing with a session to spare if they go on a roll. Bo17’s also relatively rare outside of finals nowadays.
The Shanghai Masters goes a bit crazy with it’s best of 21 semis, yet that tournament is usually one of the best on the calendar. I know Covid played its part but it was disappointing to see the Tour Championship get cut back to BO19 all the way through after its inaugural format worked brilliantly. I can only assume it’s something to do with television.
I think it was Stuart Bingham who said on Twitter that all ranking finals should be multi-session, something I agree with. Winning the Gibraltar Open is not the equivalent of winning the Tour Championship. There are surely enough tournaments on the calendar now to try and mix things up a bit (and presumably see what has the biggest TV audiences).
Wouldn’t like to change world championship, but would like to recommend, that the pockets return to normal size. You can clearly see that now tournaments are over in half the time.