The hush that enveloped John Higgins’ comeback was momentarily broken as he paced around the table. The loaded silence, sprinkled with self-conscious coughing, suddenly gave way to a buzz of discussion. Every neck inside the packed Crucible Theatre craned to one corner of the room.
Halfway through the tension-racked deciding frame of a match at the World Snooker Championship last Sunday — with Higgins facing a tricky shot — a spectator had fainted. Not two hours earlier, another fan had done the same.
The incidents were probably no more than quirks of circumstance. But to the cynics and reformers in the snooker world, they were perfect fodder. Endless matches with players dressed like waiters in a library-quiet setting? No wonder fans are slipping from consciousness.
“I just think that snooker’s always been there,” Higgins said. “It’s never had to regenerate itself; it’s always stuck to the same tournaments, the same formats year after year after year. I think people are just getting bored with it.”
Higgins collected his third World Snooker Championship and a check for £250,000 (US$376,700) on Monday, when he defeated Shaun Murphy 18-9 in the final. Higgins also won in 1998 and in 2007; Murphy was the 2005 champion.
Like darts, snooker has been a popular sport on British television since the 1970s, even as a majority of viewers were still trying to make out the different-colored balls on black-and-white TV sets. Television ratings remain strong, and so is interest from the BBC. It still devotes more than 100 hours of coverage during the 17 days of the world championship, but the game is suffering from an image problem.
The three-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan has even said that snooker is dying. And when O’Sullivan makes a claim like that, the sport’s governing body listens. Sir Rodney Walker, who has been the chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association since 2004, could not help agreeing that something needs to be done.
“Like all businesses, we have to look to the future,” Walker said. “I don’t believe that presenting the same product year after year is going to be sufficient, so we have to look for more imaginative ways to present snooker to the public.”
On the world stage, snooker still falls far behind pool, its simpler cousin. Other than six pockets and a green playing surface, the games bear little resemblance. Snooker uses 21 colored balls, a cue ball and a complex points system on a table that is nearly 3.7m long and almost 2m wide. The pockets are narrower than those on a pool table, the surface is quicker, the balls are smaller and the cues are thinner.
“It’s 100 times more difficult than pool,” Higgins said. “You look at some of the guys who didn’t quite make it to the top in snooker go over and become some of the best pool players. You couldn’t really replicate that going the other way.”
But precisely how to replicate pool’s popularity is a major sticking point for snooker.
Players like O’Sullivan and Higgins have suggested doing away with the stuffy conventions of bow ties, waistcoats and matches played over the course of four sessions on two days — much the way cricket did by inventing the shorter, more casual Twenty20 format. The older generation, however, says that few areas can be changed without changing the spirit of the game.