School
What have Neil Robertson, Ding Junhui, Marco Fu, Xiao Guodong and Aditya Mehta got in common?

 

They are all non-British players to have appeared in ranking event finals so far this season. Indeed, there were three finals in a row between two Asian players with Ding beating fellow Chinese cueman Xiao to win the Shanghai Masters, India's Mehta at the Indian Open and Hong Kong's Fu at the International Championship.

 

Five years ago that would have seemed very unlikely; ten years ago it would have been unthinkable. Until 2009, there had only ever been one ranking final between two non-British players. Now, the spread of snooker talent across the globe, particularly in Asia, is undeniable.
This season, there are players from 21 different countries on the professional tour, including 28 players from Asia.

 

Breakdown of 2013/14 World Snooker Tour players by nationality

 

England 66
China 15
Scotland 12
Wales 9
Thailand 7
Republic of Ireland 3
Australia 2
Northern Ireland 2
India 2
Malta 2
Qatar 1
Norway 1
Finland 1
Switzerland 1
Belgium 1
Egypt 1
Libya 1
Iran 1
Brazil 1
Hong Kong 1
Germany 1

 

Interest in snooker in the Orient exploded after Ding won the China Open in Beijing 2005 at the age of just 18. Here was a Chinese teenager, taking on the world's best, and beating them. He has been a role model in the Far East for the past eight years and has become one of the top three most famous sportmen in his country.

 

But as Jason Ferguson, Chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association explains, there is a lot more to it than Ding's success.

 

"You have to look at the rise of the Asians and then look at the way they invest in sport, and the way the national governing bodies develop players," said Ferguson, who was asked by World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn to lead the governing body in 2010. "In China, the government saw how popular snooker became after Ding started winning events, and they developed the Billiards and Snooker Association. Now they have all the facilities including a training academy and coaches.

 

"I have been to a lot of schools in China. There was one in Wuxi where we brought some players there, and there were 3,000 children who couldn't believe they were seeing Ding. There was another in Shanghai with 18 snooker tables within the school. You see the young players there age 13, 14 or 15 and they already look world class. In the UK, most children are brought into football and rugby, while in China it's table tennis and snooker."

 

Ferguson is now leading the task of repeating the success of China in other parts of the globe.

 

"India is coming fast and we are in discussion with the Association there about how we are going to develop the schools programme," he said. "We've already got World Snooker coaches in India and there are clubs appearing so the potential is there.

 

"There are 40 countries in Europe where people play snooker. The difference is that Asian countries have invested in the sport in the way that European ones haven't yet. The viewing figures on Eurosport are incredible, but it seems to be the case in a lot of countries in Europe that people love watching snooker on television, but they don't play it. That's partly because there aren't enough snooker clubs and coaches, and it's something we need to help change. The European Tour events help with that and when we go to Belgium we see a lot of good amateurs and the clubs are busy. In years to come I believe there will be a lot of talented players from Eastern Europe, from places like Russia, Latvia and Belarus.

 

"The World Games in Colombia this year generated interest in the Americas. The strongest nations for us in that part of the world are Brazil and Canada. There is a thriving amateur circuit in Brazil and they are interested in developing coaching activities. In the future we would like to see an Americas Tour, from which the best players would graduate to the main tour. I always look at the Olympic rings, and the one that has been missing for us is the Americas. I think there are nine countries within that region who we can work with now.

 

"Our ambition is to introduce snooker to more young people worldwide. We are not sitting back and waiting for the sport to grow, we have gone looking for the right partners and we are working with them on getting the structures in place and helping interest in snooker to grow. We have a CueZone Into schools programme which is working well in the UK.

 

"Globally, there are now 90 countries with national governing bodies. We work closely with the International Billiards and Snooker Federation on the growth of snooker worldwide. One of our long term goals is to get into the Olympics and we are targeting 2028. I believe that snooker is big enough and strong enough to take that leap forward. Along the way we can open up funding and development opportunities through working with the right bodies.

 

"We have a WPBSA development programme, which is focussed on participation, coaching, referees and opportunities to play. For many years that wasn't happening, but it is now. What excites me is the untapped potential. I could work 24 hours a day for the rest of my life and I would never run out of opportunities to keep the sport growing and get more people playing. That's my passion. We have restructured the WPBSA so that it can govern snooker effectively and also invest in it. In the past it was never able to do that because it was always running professional events. Now, World Snooker run the events and we can put our resources towards grassroots and invest our income into the sport's future.

 

"China developed quickly because we were there on the ground to help them with coaching and academies. In turn that has led to success there on the commercial side and there are now nine professional events there with millions of pounds of prize money. Sponsors know that the snooker audience there is vast, running into hundreds of millions."

 

So what about the long term future of snooker? Until now there have only been three non-British winners of the World Championship: Cliff Thorburn in 1980, Ken Doherty in 1997 and Neil Robertson in 2010. Ding seems likely to win it within the next decade, and there are many more Chinese players who could follow him. Footage on You Tube of three-year-old Wang Wuka (Wuka means Wizard-Carter as his dad is a fan of John Higgins and Ali Carter) effortlessly slotting balls into pockets suggests that snooker could be increasingly dominated by Asian potters.

 

"At the moment our tour has 16 Chinese players. I think in the coming years that could rise to 50 or 60," said Ferguson. "I don't think China will dominate snooker as it has done with table tennis because it remains extremely popular in the UK and it is growing in Europe and in other parts of the world. One thing I do know is that in 15 years, there will be more countries participating in snooker than ever before."