Breaking Big: The Enduring Appeal Of Snooker In Britain

Joel Harvey

No-one would invent snooker today. If you asked someone born this century to invent a new sport, they’d probably say Zero Gravity Robot Kickboxing. It’d be a complex, fast-paced, technological spectacle that would exhilarate and astound audiences. But it wouldn’t be a slow, indoor game where the sole object was to pot some coloured balls into holes.

Snooker isn’t complicated. You don’t need a thesis in snooker theory to understand how it works. And you don’t need anyone to try and explain the rules to you either. With perhaps the exception of boxing, it’s the most primal sport that can be understood by anyone: you pot these balls into those holes. Even early Neanderthals could’ve invented it. Give them a big stick, different shaped rocks, and a few holes dug in the ground, and off they’d go. Put some waistcoats on them, and it wouldn’t look any different from the game played today. Just make sure those waistcoats aren’t too tight around the mid-riff though…

The unassuming simplicity of snooker would make it the perfect fit for reserved British audiences. And during the seventies, when money was tight, the low-production values of snooker would entice television executives too. Other sports would require an outdoor broadcast team and multiple cameras, but little old indoor snooker could be televised with minimal costs. Snooker was suddenly being thrust into homes everywhere, and it grew in stature to become a national obsession. An incredible 18.5million viewers watched the 1985 World Snooker Championship final when it was shown on BBC Two. Christ, even Bake Off didn’t get those kind of numbers when it was on BBC Two.

Such popularity turned snooker players (who effectively were no different from your dad), into household names. Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor, and Jimmy White became superstars, but they were all just men you might’ve seen down a local pub. The kind of guy who’d quietly sip on a pint of ale in the corner, before uncoiling like a rattlesnake whenever someone suggested a game of snooker. They weren’t untouchable athletes, though, they were just normal, everyday blokes. And in Thatcher’s Britain, they became champions of the people. At a time when the working-class felt like they were being stamped out of existence, they now had ordinary heroes on their TV to worship.

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Britain would continue its love affair with snooker throughout the nineties. Personalities like Ronnie O’Sullivan would always generate enough headlines to keep the sport in the limelight. Audiences were changing, though, and the slow trudge of snooker on TV wasn’t as appealing to a new generation used to living in the fast-lane. As a result, audiences in Britain shrank, but it still remains a permanent sporting fixture in many Briton’s households (most likely, your parents). And these days, it’s grown globally with China now also being diagnosed with the “snooker loopy” disease. It’s a sport that largely doesn’t need updating, as it always seems to win over new fans no matter how much the world changes around it.

You see, snooker is like Stonehenge: largely static, but undeniably hypnotic to look at. Flick through your TV on a lazy Sunday, and there it is, staring at you in all its dull glory. And you’ll watch it, for hours on end, transfixed by the movement of these little-coloured balls across your screen. Maybe you’ll end up doing something else, and leave it on in the background. Or maybe you’ll fall asleep on your sofa whilst watching it. Either way, the snooker will carry on, just like it always has, like a calming sporting opiate for the masses.

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