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Lure of China leads Hearn to test Sheffield's resolve

SNOOKER supremo Barry Hearn is playing a cat-and-mouse game with Sheffield City Council to see whether they want to keep the Dafabet World Championship in the city.

Pure theatre, but the World Championship could be on the move. Picture: PA
Pure theatre, but the World Championship could be on the move. Picture: PA

The iconic tournament has been held at the Crucible Theatre since 1997, but the current agreement to stage the event in Sheffield expires after next year's event and the snooker-mad Chinese have already expressed a genuine interest to host the tournament in future.

The popularity of the game has risen greatly in China with Ding Junhui having dominated rankings this season. In an audacious bid to force Hearn's hand, the Chinese have even started building a replica of the Crucible on the outskirts of Beijing to replicate the famous venue.

"Discussions are underway," revealed Hearn. "We know we have another year yet, but I think we are having some meaningful dialogue and, hopefully over the next couple of months, we should resolve the situation.

"We want to stay in Sheffield, if we can maintain the support of Sheffield City Council. But it's up to them. I think we add something to Sheffield, and I think they would like to keep us here. It's a partnership and I think the partnership will be extended. I am very optimistic. People are mindful, they realise what value this brings to Sheffield, not only in exposure, but the amount of people who come to the city and put Sheffield on the global map. I am very confident that we will be able to arrange a deal and in the next couple of months we can announce an extension to our existing partnership."

However, a senior Sheffield City Council member is understood to be unhappy with the image televised snooker portrays of the city - that Sheffield is viewed as "one big man's club with little or no aspiration".

Hearn and the BBC agreed a new three-year deal to broadcast snooker's premier tournament until 2017, a contract that was signed in January. But that deal is not dependent on the event being staged in Sheffield, now established as the sport's spiritual home. "Sheffield is not mentioned in the BBC contract," confirmed Hearn, who believes remaining in Yorkshire and shunning the financial lure of China is the preferred option.

"After being involved in this sport for so many years, I can't imagine not having the World Championship at the Crucible, in the same way I can't imagine the All England Club not having Wimbledon.

"Snooker is enjoying phenomenal success and attracting new broadcasters from around the world, but from Sheffield's perspective, it puts the city on a global map, not a provincial map.

"The UK Championship has found a home in York. It's a great venue, great people, and the same as Sheffield, there's a partnership there where everyone's happy with each other. When you have a situation like that, both sides are winning, so there's no reason to make changes. It's not broken, no need to fix it."

The BBC are understood to be keen to keep broadcasting the event after 2017 with a staggering 28.5m people having tuned in to watch last year's World Championship. But they would be unlikely to favour broadcasting the event if it moved to Beijing, which is seven hours ahead of the UK.

Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, said: "The World Snooker Championships are an important part of our sports rights portfolio and we're delighted to be continuing our coverage of the sport's three major events."

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