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Could the World Snooker Championship leave Crucible as Ronnie O'Sullivan signs commercial deal with Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is hosting two tournaments and signing seven-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan as an ambassador showcases the country's increasing investment in snooker; could it become host of the World Snooker Championship when Sheffield's deal to host the tournament expires in 2027?

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Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol assesses whether the World Snooker Championship could move to Saudi Arabia

“My tombstone will not say ‘This is the man who took the World Championships away from the Crucible’.” The words of now-retired World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn when a contract was signed in 2017 to keep the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre.

How much longer the sport's most prestigious event will remain at the venue which has hosted it for 47 years is again being debated though, with the existing hosting and broadcast contracts up for renewal in three years' time.

The news ahead of this year's World Championship, which starts on Saturday, that Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Season has become a commercial partner of the tournament and Ronnie O'Sullivan has signed a three-year ambassadorial agreement to help grow the sport in the nation has many now wondering whether the event could move to the Middle East.

So, how realistic is it that Sheffield may not be the home to the biggest tournament in snooker for much longer?

What is the significance of the Crucible?

By the time the current contract with Sheffield City Council expires, the Crucible will have hosted the World Championship for half a century, being instituted there by promoter Mike Watterson on the suggestion of his wife after she had watched a play at the venue and felt it would be ideal for snooker.

In that time, it has been the scene of some of snooker's most iconic moments such as Alex Higgins' emotional 1982 triumph, the 1985 black-ball final watched on television by 18.5m people, and Stephen Hendry and O'Sullivan's respective seven-title successes.

Such is its importance to the area that Sheffield City Council pay World Snooker Tour (WST) a staging fee under the contract to cover costs for the event and while the amount is not made public, the council's estimates state the 17-day event has an economic impact on the Steel City of around £3m annually.

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Ronnie O'Sullivan says if the World Snooker Championship was relocated to Saudi Arabia then he would find the tournament more convenient as a player

The Crucible has become an annual pilgrimage site for snooker fans from around the world as well, but despite the intimate atmosphere being loved by spectators and players, the capacity of the venue being only 980 presents commercial challenges for WST.

A proposed 3,000-seat venue being built in Sheffield to keep the World Championship there beyond 2027 is on the cards. Eddie Hearn, chairman of Matchroom Sport which acquired WST in June 2010, stated no discussions over moving elsewhere have taken place either.

But even while acknowledging his father Barry's love of the venue, the chairman of Matchroom Sport, which has owned WST since June 2010, added there are other factors which must be considered.

"The Crucible means a lot, to a lot of people, with the history of the sport there," Hearn told Sky Sports News. "But from a business and commercial standpoint it is a small arena which we know we could sell out four or five times.

Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol on Saudi Arabia's snooker ambitions

Saudi Arabia is ready to host the snooker World Championship as it continues its drive to invest in sport.

Snooker’s flagship event has been held at the 980-capacity Crucible theatre since 1977 but it could be on the move when the venue’s contract to host the tournament runs out in 2027.

Speaking three days before this year’s World Championship starts in Sheffield on Saturday, His Excellency Turki Alalshikh - one of the most powerful figures in Saudi sport - made no secret of his willingness to build on the success of the tournament by moving it to a bigger venue.

Alalshikh has played a key role in staging boxing’s biggest bouts in Saudi Arabia and one month before Tyson Fury fights Oleksandr Usyk in Riyadh, he was in London to sign contracts to invest in snooker and develop the sport in his home country.

O’Sullivan won the first World Snooker Tour event held in Saudi Arabia last month and he can see the World Championship moving there in the future.

Matchroom chairman Eddie Hearn says moving the World Championship is not being discussed at the moment, but there are no guarantees about what will happen after 2027.

Cazoo World Snooker Championship 2023 - Day 17 - Final - The Crucible
Mark Selby in action against Luca Brecel (not pictured) during the final on day seventeen of the Cazoo World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Picture date: Monday May 1, 2023.
Image: The Crucible in Sheffield has been home to the World Snooker Championship since 1977

"We can't overlook the history and the legacy of the sport there, but we're under pressure, as always, to provide opportunity for our members and the players, and if there is a chance to change their lives by record prizemoney it's something we have to look at as well.

"At the moment, there are no discussions, no plans, to move the World Championship, but in three years' time the landscape might have changed."

What is Saudi Arabia's involvement in snooker?

Snooker joined boxing and golf as part of Saudi Arabia's growing sporting portfolio in March with the staging of the inaugural non-ranking World Masters of Snooker event, which will return for the 2024/25 season.

In addition, the Middle Eastern nation will host its first ranking event in August in the form of the Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters which will be open to all 128 WST players plus six local wild cards and have a £2m prize fund - the highest of any tournament outside the World Championship.

The investment in snooker has been driven by His Excellency Turki Alalshikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority, and he made no secret of the desire to bring the sport's biggest event to his homeland.

"We are ready - I will discuss with Eddie Hearn," His Excellency told Sky Sports News. "It would be a pleasure to have everything in our country and we support what happens in other countries, also."

Seven-time world champion and world No 1 O'Sullivan's ambassadorial agreement has seen him commit to playing in all of the events in Saudi Arabia for the next three years, along with agreeing to provide coaching and development at grassroots level.

The 48-year-old won the World Masters with a 5-2 victory over reigning world champion Luca Brecel in the final and even though the tournament was played with some unusual late-night timings, he was impressed with the organisation and how the players were accommodated.

"I like the late nights," O'Sullivan told Sky Sports News. "In the evening, the atmosphere just gets warmer and warmer. Snooker is really an evening sport, in the mornings it's hard to get going, so when we were playing at 2.30am or 3am I was thinking 'this is fantastic'.

Brecel, O'Sullivan
Image: Luca Brecel and Ronnie O'Sullivan contested the final of the inaugural World Masters of Snooker

"There was a full crowd there, the crowd were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the facilities as a player are important. Everything was easy for the players and when you're in that sort of environment, you naturally play well and enjoy just being there."

Could the World Snooker Championship leave Sheffield?

Speculation over the World Championship departing The Crucible is not new, with China being repeatedly mooted as a potential venue following the growth in the number of Chinese players on the tour in the past two decades, while 2022 World Cup host Qatar was reported as showing interest last year.

So far, Sheffield has managed to see off competition, but the emergence of Saudi Arabia as player on the global sporting stage in terms of hosting major events and the financial backing they could bring will undoubtedly up the stakes for those keen to keep the tournament at its iconic long-term home.

O'Sullivan, who has been critical of the facilities at the Crucible, certainly believes it is a realistic prospect it could move and that a switch to Saudi Arabia would elevate the World Championship to another level.

Cazoo World Snooker Championship 2023 - Day 11 - The Crucible
Ronnie O'Sullivan in action against Luca Brecel (not pictured) on day eleven of the Cazoo World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Picture date: Tuesday April 25, 2023.
Image: Ronnie O'Sullivan has been critical of the facilities at The Crucible in the past

"The Crucible is a great venue, don't get me wrong," O'Sullivan said. "It's got great history and I've got some great memories there, but as a snooker player, you thrive in being in an environment where everything is catered for.

"It's hard to get in and out, it's hard to get a proper allocation for practice times, it's a busy place and the World Championship is a massive event.

"I think Saudi Arabia could get hold of this tournament, grab it by the scruff of the neck and turn it into a Wimbledon or a French Open or US Open, and really make it a super event."

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