Skip to main content

The near-silent sport which has become the latest focus of Saudi Arabia's imagination

·8 mins

No one dares speak louder than a whisper as nearly 1,000 people respectfully take their seats inside the dimly lit Crucible Theatre.

There is a sense of nervous excitement as those lucky enough to get their hands on a ticket cram into this historic venue in the heart of Sheffield, a city in the north of England.

But they’re not here to see a theatrical performance. They’ve come witness the nerve-shredding, silently-electric atmosphere of the World Snooker Championship.

If you’re unfamiliar with snooker it’s a sport that requires formidable patience and outstanding precision in equal measure. Think chess played on green baize rather than a checkered board. Players score points by potting a sequence of balls, looking to ruthlessly capitalize on an opponent’s mistake.

Matches can be long – the 1985 world final lasted over 14 hours – and the crowd watches in almost total silence, breaking into polite applause should a player pull off a remarkable shot.

The World Snooker Tour (WST) – organizers of the World Snooker Championship – say the sport is watched by half-a-billion people around the world.

For the past 47 years, the historic Crucible Theatre has been the home of the annual tournament, a sporting nirvana which attracts people from around the world to its doors.

Snooker and Sheffield go together like peas and carrots, it’s very special.'

But the venue’s long affiliation with the tournament has seemingly come under threat from a source quite literally, and figuratively, thousands of miles away.

As you walk through the spectacularly unspectacular bowls of the theatre, everyone is talking about the growing influence of Saudi Arabia on snooker.

The Kingdom recently signed a lucrative deal with WST which some predict is a precursor to the event moving to Saudi Arabia once the current contract with the Crucible Theatre ends in 2027.

It’s a decision which might make business sense, but one that would tear the sport away from one of its spiritual homes, given the historical connection between snooker and the Crucible.

Getting off the train at Sheffield, a city made famous by its historic steel production, you might expect to be confronted by a wash of neon promotional material, advertising this year’s championship.

But while such events in other sports might trigger a festival-like atmosphere in its host city, the reality in Sheffield is somewhat different.

In the place of jovial fans and buzzing excitement, there’s a slow slog up the hill toward a somewhat nondescript building which blends into the sea of grey around it.

While Sheffield locals go about their day as usual, a smattering of fans take refuge from the cold breeze in a conservatory opposite the venue where they queue up to test their ability with a number of snooker challenges.

Many fans tell CNN how excited they are to be here, and that they’ve been waiting all year to make the trip, but the noise levels never peak higher than a quiet murmur.

For much of the year, the Crucible Theatre is home to an array of world class productions and is considered one of the best places to watch live theatre in England, if not the world.

It’s designed specifically with the audience in mind, with seats cascading down onto the thrust stage which has been home to Shakespearian tragedies and modern classics.

Snooker was brought to this pocket of northern England by promoter Mike Watterson in 1977, after his wife had watched a play at the theatre and suggested it could be a good option to hold the championship.

Even at that time, there were fears the venue would be too small to hold the two snooker tables needed to host the tournament, but the decision was made to give it a go.

Now the 980-capacity arena could be sold out multiple times over, with the historic venue in desperate need of evolution. In a world where money is king, the Crucible Theatre is seemingly holding the business of the tournament back.

This year, Iranian player Hossein Vafaei even said the venue ‘smells really bad,’ a damning verdict for a space so loved by so many.

But while its drab hallways perhaps could do with a lick of paint, the arena floor immediately grabs the eye.

The two 12x6ft tables stand strong under the bright lights, covered by an immaculate green cloth. Every kink, every flick of chalk is enough to derail the players, so the pristine playing surface is closely monitored by a small team of experts – cared for like the green turf at Wembley Stadium.

Snooker experienced its boom years here in the 1980s and these walls have crowned dozens of world champions throughout the decades. You can feel the history, and that’s perhaps more important than anything money can buy.

The arena’s seats are closely wedged together and tower over the players as they take to the stage which lives up to its crucible name. Fans are so close to the players, it’s as if they are part of the action. So close that they can see every furrowed brow from the players.

‘Every seat is a great seat, you feel like the crowd is right on top of you because that’s how it’s been designed,’ Murphy adds. ‘This place has been designed for performing and so when you get here, that atmosphere is just incredible.’

‘We are very, very lucky. It’s our theatre of dreams. Young players, like myself, when we started playing, we dreamt of doing it here. Like tennis players dream of doing it at Wimbledon.’

Like many fans attending this year, the 2005 world champion Murphy does not want the championship to move away from the Crucible Theatre, but he knows that romance and nostalgia alone will not be enough to keep the tournament at the venue.

While Sheffield holds the memories, Saudi Arabia offers the key to larger prize money and bigger venues. The nation has disrupted the landscape of top-flight soccer and caused a bitter divide in professional golf.

Snooker, it seems, could be next in line.

‘Unfortunately, there is no real battle between nostalgia and business. There is no fight, really. Money wins everyday, that’s the nature of the world,’ Murphy concedes, calling on Sheffield to build a bigger arena in the city.

‘With my snooker-lover’s hat on, I don’t want the World Championships to leave here at all but commercially we can’t keep having our biggest event in our smallest venue.’

It’s a sentiment shared, perhaps more brutally, by the game’s biggest star, Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The Englishman is arguably the greatest player to ever pick up a snooker cue and has won seven world titles to date. His personality and unadulterated talent has seen him grow bigger than the game and he’s frequently threatened to walk away from the sport unless it starts catching up.

He has been critical of the the Crucible Theatre in the past, wanting a touch more luxury from the venue.

Perhaps ominously, O’Sullivan recently signed a three-year deal with Saudi Arabia which will see him act as an ambassador for the sport in the nation.

Speaking to reporters after his first-round victory at this year’s event, the 48-year-old reiterated his stance that the respect for history should not stand in the way of progression.

‘Each sport is a business, whether you like it or not. So you have to do what’s right for you. We live in a competitive world so it’s great because there is choice out there,’ he told journalists bluntly, showcasing a Saudi-owned sponsor on his sleeve.

‘The Saudis are a powerful outfit, same as China, they are serious players. Things get done very quickly. They’re hard to turn down.

‘For me, I just want to play snooker, I want to be looked after, I want to be pampered. Anyone wants to pamper me, I’m your man.’

Saudi Arabia has previously pushed back on allegations of ‘sportswashing,’ which involves countries using high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world, often to draw attention away from alleged wrongdoing.

O’Sullivan was quick to dismiss the notion that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record would potentially put him off the venture, pointing instead to the wrongdoings of countries in the Western world.

While the sport’s biggest star remains open to a move, the tournament’s organizer told CNN it was in talks with Sheffield city council about new plans for the venue but did say it was exploring all opportunities.

‘Firstly, we love the Crucible and we absolutely share the connection which players and fans feel,’ WST chairman Steve Dawson said in a statement.

‘It is one of the great arenas in any sport worldwide and as soon as you walk through the door you feel the history and remember all the great moments that have played out on that stage. There is a very strong emotional attachment.

‘We have a responsibility to the players, the fans and the sport itself to consider all options regarding the future of the Championship after 2027, whether that means staying in Sheffield or moving the event elsewhere.

‘We are a rapidly growing sport and this is already a huge global event, the pinnacle of the season and a worldwide showcase of the sport. We will maximize its potential.’

While organizers, players and fans alike wax lyrical about what the Crucible Theatre means to snooker, there is a sense of inevitability around the venue this year that an era is slowly coming to an end.

Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of snooker should not be surprising, but moving the World Snooker Championship would be an emotional decision for many of its fans.

In search of a more profitable future, though, snooker could be the latest sport to turn to Saudi for help. Either way, it seems like…