‘Sheffield is the home of snooker’: talk of Crucible exit sparks local concern

Picture the scene. There is live sport on a big screen, and on the artificial grass deckchairs are laid out, with pints of lager flowing. It sounds like a scene from continental Europe during a major football tournament: but this is Sheffield city centre on a grey, murky Friday morning.

It is perhaps fitting that Tudor Square, the part of Sheffield where the Crucible Theatre is situated, is dubbed the “Heart of the City” on the tourist information around town. Because for two weeks every year, snooker and its most iconic venue is at the beating heart of Sheffield – for now, at least.

One thing is clear: the world championship will remain in Sheffield at the Crucible Theatre until 2027 at least. Beyond that? Who knows. Murmurings of the tournament moving to a venue bigger than the 980-seat capacity Crucible have always existed but with Saudi Arabia now muscling in on the snooker scene, the threat of the tournament leaving Sheffield feels very real.

For the snooker purists it would be a blow. For the city itself it would be even greater. Sheffield city council says that the two-week event generates millions of pounds for the local economy every year, making it an asset the council is determined to keep hold of beyond the current contract.

“Sheffield is the home of snooker, much like Wimbledon is to tennis and Aintree is to the Grand National,” Kate Josephs, the chief executive of Sheffield city council, says. “The World Snooker Championships and Sheffield go hand in hand.

“The atmosphere the Crucible Theatre offers is unrivalled. It is an experience you cannot get anywhere else. In recent weeks we have heard players such as Tom Ford, Shaun Murphy and Barry Hawkins describe the magical mood when competing at the venue. Shaun said the theatre was ‘one of the best in the world’ and that to the sport it was ‘home’, and we couldn’t agree more.”

Shaun Murphy enters the arena before the 2015 final at the Crucible. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Sheffield losing the snooker would not just affect the Crucible, but the dozens of local businesses within the vicinity of the theatre that thrive at this time of the year. Conor McEwen is the manager of Marmadukes, an independent cafe yards away from the player’s entrance in Sheffield. He estimates that his takings rise by around 25% throughout the event.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” he says. “We plan for it every year, it’s a huge event. Sometimes on the weekends when it’s on, we can be around 40% up. We’re a busy business outside of it so we’re not entirely dependent on it but it would be a huge loss if it moved somewhere else.

“Before the morning sessions, everyone comes in for breakfast from around 8am and it’s all snooker fans. By 9.30am we’ve emptied out but then people start coming for the afternoon sessions. It’s a big thing for so many businesses in the area, not just ours.” The local bars and restaurants also see a similar spike in revenue at this time of year.

But there is not just a financial impact to this – there is a sentimental one too. Some of those sat in the specially-designed spectator area outside the Crucible on Friday morning were there for the afternoon session between Stuart Bingham and Jak Jones. They arrived early to watch David Gilbert’s semi-final with Kyren Wilson on the big screen to make the most of their day.

Two of them, Neil and Michael, first came to the Crucible in the 1980s with their father, and continue to make the trip an annual tradition. “It’s probably beyond our budget to do this in Saudi Arabia – a couple of pints afterwards and the train home is about as far as we can stretch,” Neil says with a smile.

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The Crucible’s limited capacity of 980 has prompted talk of the world championship moving elsewhere. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

“I understand everything has a price but for so many people, coming here and watching the snooker is something we’ve done for years,” Michael says. “It’s hard to imagine it ever feeling the same anywhere else.”

So what happens next? Barry Hearn, the former World Snooker and chairman and Matchroom owner, has said the governing body will consider all options, domestic and overseas, and has even implored Sheffield city council to build a 3,000-capacity venue to host the tournament. For the short-term, it will remain at its spiritual home; after that, the future is much more uncertain.

“As snooker grows, Sheffield is growing too – the city centre is undergoing a massive £470m transformation, with a new world-class hotel, more restaurants, cafes and entertainment spaces,” Josephs says. “We are in regular contact with World Snooker Tour and meet with them before, during and after each tournament – we will continue to have conversations with them about a way forward that works for us all.”

Things will go on, no matter what happens. But it is abundantly clear from just one morning in Sheffield that, if the tournament ever left this part of the world, it would have a far bigger impact locally than on the few hundred fortunate enough to get tickets.

The Guardian