Talk of the World Snooker Championship leaving the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield isn’t especially new.
However, despite vehement dissent from most traditionalist fans of the sport, in recent years 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 46 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 that O’Sullivan finally equalled in 2022 to establish himself as the undeniable greatest ever.
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 five 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, questions are continuously being 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 is a growing section who are in favour of change.
Twelve months ago, Mark Allen and Neil Robertson were among several high-profile players who indicated their desire for the World Championship to move.
Still, aside from a persistent problem of visibly empty front-row Crucible seats as a result of unsold or unoccupied VIP tickets, all seemed relatively quiet this year on the discussion of relocating.
Quiet, that is, until Barry Hearn was quoted on Thursday as saying that the World Snooker Championship could potentially be off to Qatar.
For his entire tenure as the World Snooker Tour chairman, Hearn was always adamant that the sport’s flagship tournament was definitely going to stay at the Crucible.
But since relinquishing his primary roles at WST to Steve Dawson and at Matchroom Sport to his son Eddie, there has been more than a sliver of a hint from Hearn that the partnership in a long-term sense isn’t unbreakable.
“Take the Crucible, the debate goes on – 980 seats,” Hearn said this week. “Qatar said to me last week, ‘what year does that World Snooker contract run out with Sheffield?'”
“They asked me. I said, ‘It’s 2027-28.’ They replied, ‘can we be in consideration? Can we have a say in it?’”
“They don’t have a snooker background. But it’s (a case of) if you want to do a nice big event, then we will put you in the mix.
“Who knows what is going to happen. I mean I have told (Sheffield) what they have got to do. I haven’t seen too much activity in that way.
“We are part of the Sheffield development plan. But again I need a bit more juice on it. I live in a world of people talking about things.
“In the world I like to operate in, it’s where people do things. They are in that process, I am not criticising them. Let’s hope it comes up.
“We are in 2023, they have four to five years. But I don’t want it to be a decision made in four or five years.
“I am a Sheffield fan. I want to stay here, but it might not be my decision – well, it’s not.
“I am the president non-executive, so I don’t really have any power other than we are still going to do what I tell them to do.”
Whether Qatar is a genuine threat or merely a ruse is largely irrelevant – for the moment at least – in the sense that, either way, it pinpoints where the Hearn dynasty’s true loyalties will ultimately lie – money.
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 main 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, and arguably should, attract significantly more.
Taking the World Championship to somewhere like Qatar would be a dreadful turn of events, although one suspects that if it were to eventually leave the UK it would end up in China.
Yet there is a reason why this conversation about moving resurfaces time and time again – what was a perfect home for the sport’s biggest tournament in 1977 simply isn’t any more.
Those empty front-row seats, a stab in the back to loyal fans who for years occupied them but have since been priced out, have only become an issue because the Crucible isn’t fit for purpose in the modern sporting environment.
Several other possible alternatives have been mooted in recent times.
Robertson suggested last year that 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 idea on a purpose-built snooker venue already having been proposed.
A third option, if the World Snooker Championship does in fact leave the Crucible and Sheffield but stays in the UK, 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.
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 like any other has an aspiration of extending its reach, becoming global, and being as successful as it possibly can be.
To achieve that, the unfortunate 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 Snooker Championship is this sport’s soul-searching conundrum that remains unsolved.
This article was first written and published in April, 2022 and was updated in April, 2023.
Featured photo credit: WST