Crucible snooker
Features, World Championship

The Crucible Conundrum: Should Snooker Stay or Go?

Talk of the World Snooker Championship leaving the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield isn’t especially new.

However, this year more than most in recent memory the debate seems to have been ratcheted up a level.

Snooker, the Crucible Theatre, and Sheffield are all synonymous with one another – the purportedly perfect partnership in marriage that began 45 years ago.

Promoter Mike Watterson, upon the recommendation of his wife who had seen a play in the theatre, took the World Championship to the Crucible in 1977.

So many of snooker’s most iconic moments have happened at the venue since then.

In 1982, Alex Higgins won the World Championship for the second time, producing one of the breaks of the century in his semi-final victory over Jimmy White before cradling his baby in a flood of tears after beating Ray Reardon in the final.

In 1985 and watched by millions, Dennis Taylor fought back from 8-0 behind in the final to pip defending champion Steve Davis 18-17 on the very last black.

Between 1990 and 1994, Jimmy White’s legion of fans suffered one heartache after another as the Whirlwind was to be denied world glory at the final hurdle for five editions in a row, and six in total.

In 1997, a young Ronnie O’Sullivan produced a stunning quick-fire maximum break in just five minutes and eight seconds.

Two years later, Stephen Hendry triumphed for a seventh time – a two-decade old record O’Sullivan is attempting to equal in 2022.

In 2005, 22 year-old Shaun Murphy became only the second qualifier ever to raise the trophy aloft amid a bombardment of aggressive, attacking snooker.

Six years later, Judd Trump announced himself to a global audience with his unique brand of “naughty snooker” only to just fall short in an electric title decider against John Higgins.

In 2013, O’Sullivan conjured arguably the greatest feat in the game’s history, winning the world title at a canter having taken an entire year off after his 2012 success.

And four years ago, Class of ’92 stalwarts Mark Williams and John Higgins combined in one of the greatest finals of them all, with the Welshman edging the Scot in an 18-16 thriller.

Of course, there have been many, many more magical memories – it is a list that could go on and on.

Yet, with the current ten-year contract to stage the World Championship at the Crucible Theatre until 2027 creeping nearer to its climax, question marks have been raised over the future destination of the sport’s blue-riband showpiece.

While there are still a large number of players and fans in support of keeping it at the Crucible, there does seem to be a growing section who are in favour of a change.

Notable names such as Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire, and Mark Allen have all weighed in on the subject in recent weeks.

That each of them have relatively poor records at the Crucible is a fact that has not been lost on those who are in staunch support of keeping a status quo.

But there have been other telling signs that major changes could be afoot.

For his entire tenure as the World Snooker Tour chairman, Barry Hearn was always adamant that the World Championship was definitely going to stay at the Crucible.

But for the first time, that I can remember anyway, there was a sliver of a hint from Hearn that the partnership in a long-term sense isn’t unbreakable.

“We have an agreement with the council for the next four years or so to stay here, and that of course will be honoured,” Hearn told the BBC.

“I think we are synonymous with Sheffield and the history we have created with the Crucible is without doubt a very important part of the brand of snooker.”

“Early talks at the moment with Sheffield council are why don’t we look at perhaps building a new Crucible in Sheffield so we do not have to think about going anywhere else?

“If I could do anything on the existing site, of course I would. But there simply isn’t space.

“I would rather stay here and my heart tells me this is where Sheffield and snooker deserve to be.

“It just needs a little bit of understanding and investment of people’s time, people’s heart and maybe a few quid from central government.”

Ever the strategic businessman, Hearn knows that comments like these will put pressure on both the Crucible and Sheffield to come up with a plan, and the clock is ticking.

The fact is that snooker is losing out financially while staging its flagship event at a venue that is, undeniably, too small.

The Crucible can accommodate just shy of 1,000 people, but a tournament as big as the World Championship could attract significantly more.

There should always be a place for tradition, but that shouldn’t stand in a sport’s way in terms of growth either.

Several possible alternatives have been mooted.

Robertson has suggested there could be a second Crucible, much in the same manner as how there is a Centre Court and a No.1 Court at Wimbledon.

Leaving the Crucible but staying in Sheffield is another choice, with an interesting proposal on a purpose-built snooker venue from several years ago resurfacing in recent days.

The third, and arguably most likely option if the World Snooker Championship does in fact leave the Crucible, is a move to the Alexandra Palace in London.

Over the course of the last decade, the Ally Pally has hosted the prestigious Masters invitational to great success.

Indeed, this year the atmosphere was as electric as it has ever been, something that emcee and BBC interviewer Rob Walker was keen to point out at every possible opportunity he could.

Whether someone had a quiet word in Walker’s ear or not prior to the tournament would be mere speculation, but it did seem peculiar how, out of seemingly nowhere, there was this propagandist push by many high-profile commentators towards relentlessly promoting the Alexandra Palace as the best snooker venue in the world.

Is there a deal in the pipeline to move the World Snooker Championship there? At this stage who knows, but it certainly would not be a surprise.

The Ally Pally may not be able to compete with the Crucible Theatre in terms of romance and history, but in terms of tickets and revenue it would be a winner.

Snooker is a niche sport but has an aspiration of extending its reach, becoming global, and being as successful as it possibly can be.

To achieve that, the sad truth is that the Crucible Theatre does not tick enough boxes, not the way it is in its current form at least.

It’s a special place with momentous memories, and with a contract that runs until 2027 snooker’s bond with the venue will reach the poignant half-century mark.

Whether that will symbolise the Crucible Theatre’s final act for the World Championship is this sport’s soul-searching conundrum that remains unsolved.

Featured photo credit: Monique Limbos

6 Comments

  1. Very Good Love Read snooker Lyndon from Carmarthen west Wales.

  2. Perhaps swap locations, Alexandra Palace for WC, Crucible for the Masters. The crucible is perfect for one table tournaments!

  3. Marc Morrissey

    The World Championship must leave the Crucible 100% or become a part of a second new purpose built venue adjacent to or close buy. Sentimentality must never get in the way of doing what’s right for the future, for snooker, for our massively growing sport. Sheffield must stay as the home of snooker so let’s get these plans rolling and get it done so Sheffield can move proudly into the future with a brand new Crucible complex with World class facilities and a World class atmosphere that even rivals or surpasses the Alexander Palace and the old Wembley conference centre!

  4. A vital requirement for the World Championship should be the best possible playing conditions. Unfortunately the Crucible cannot offer that. We all know this, but somehow people are swayed by the ‘nostalgia’ argument: including of course all the commentators, former players and indeed Barry Hearn who all have their special memories. That’s why rational debate tends to be strangled. Is the future of snooker their priority?

    I am approaching 50 years old, and have played and watched snooker since the 1980’s. I remember all those matches vividly, but I want to see snooker develop to the next level – to become a major global sport. This requires an upgrade to a venue with suitable media and corporate hospitality, and probably a larger crowd with decent facilities for them. The idea that ‘only the Crucible’ can provide a special atmosphere is nonsense. This season I have travelled to Alexandra Palace and the Tempodrom and witnessed great atmospheres there. What’s special is that it is the World Championship, with the highest stakes. It’s not so much that the building itself is ‘special’.

    The biggest threat to snooker’s precious history is that it will be forgotten… That nearly happened in the 1960’s, and certainly happened to billiards. Snooker could be in real trouble when most of today’s star players are no longer there, with 9-ball pool anxious to take over. Mike Watterson, the WPBSA and the BBC showed courage, ambition and imagination when they made their ‘historic’ decisions in the late 1970’s. We desperately need some of that now.

    • Jamie Brannon

      I don’t agree that the conditions are poor at the Crucible as the standard in recent years has been exceptional. The century count is evidence of this.

      Neil Robertson’s suggestion is the only palatable alternative to leaving the Crucible. Playing the two biggest events at Alexandra Palace would actually demean the excitement around both tournaments. Another reason the Crucible is so special is that snooker is basically the only sport played there. London is already staging a high volume of big sporting events that I’m quite opposed to seeing Sheffield lose an event that is great for the city. It’s important the UK’s biggest sporting competitions are spread around the country.

      I also believe it’s overplayed just how significant a larger venue would be in generating extra revenue. Tossing away so much history for the sake of an extra 1,000 ticket sales doesn’t seem justifiable.

      • But that’s my point about history: it can’t be ‘tossed away’! Cliff Thorburn will still have made his 147, Dennis Taylor will still have potted the black! The danger is that the progression of history is suffocated, or history is forgotten by newer generations who view snooker as dated, hidebound, obsolete.

        I do agree the Sheffield is the best place, with two arenas (or parallel venues) the ideal set-up. This ‘curtain’ coming down between two tables, with clearly inadequate space, is an embarrassment.

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