Match-fixing charges against 10 Chinese snooker players in the biggest corruption scandal to engulf one of the world’s fastest-growing sports has left fans and organisers fearful for the future of the game.
The players, including 2021 Masters champion Yan Bingtao and that year’s UK championship winner Zhao Xintong, have been suspended as part of an investigation into claims of “manipulating the outcome of matches for betting purposes” by the integrity unit at the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA).
The revelations have raised questions about the influence of betting syndicates often run by organised crime gangs on a sport with a growing global following.
The rise of snooker – a game invented by British army officers in India in the 1870s – has largely been fuelled by a growing interest in the sport in East Asia, particularly China.
Once largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it came to attract large TV audiences in the 1980s and 1990s, snooker’s wider growth was driven by the emergence of Asian players, such as Thailand’s James Wattana and Ding Junhui of China, whose 2005 China Open victory at the age of 18 kick-started a Chinese snooker boom.
The sport is now played by more than 120 million people worldwide and attracts TV audiences of 500 million. It is striving to complete its image transformation from a game played in smoky back-street halls by vying for inclusion in the 2028 Olympic Games.
“Snooker underwent a transformation from about late 2009 when Barry Hearn took control of the professional game,” said Marcus Stead, editor of Snooker Scene magazine, referring to the businessman credited with popularising the sport in Britain in the 1980s who became the WPBSA chairman two decades later.
“The game was at a low ebb but there’s now a lot more snooker being played. If you go back to the so-called golden age of snooker in the 1980s, most of the players were from Britain or Canada or a few from South Africa.
“It’s now much, much more global. The sheer number of players in China is absolutely enormous. You’ve also had growth in continental Europe and Australia.”
While some have questioned whether this growth has left snooker open to match-fixing, experts in sport integrity say it is at no greater risk than many other sports.
“Snooker is not the most at-risk or most affected sport,” said Tom Mace, director of global operations for integrity services at Sportradar, the sports technology company that monitors betting and worked on the WPBSA investigation.
“Because of the scale of this current action and the WPBSA’s strict zero-tolerance approach, where you’ve got 10 players from China being suspended, it may appear that snooker is the most at-risk or affected sport compared to others but from our perspective that’s not the case.
“It currently sits seventh in our all-time list in terms of matches detected per sport. The likes of football, tennis, basketball, table tennis, ice hockey all have higher numbers of suspicious matches detected. Snooker is not exceptional in terms of match-fixing risk.”
Sportradar’s 2021 annual report on betting corruption and match-fixing recorded 903 suspicious matches in 10 sports, across 76 countries – a record over the 17 years it has monitored sports integrity.
The company, which has its headquarters in St Gallen, Switzerland, estimated these matches generated some 165 million euros ($180m) in match-fixing betting profit. As the world’s most popular sport, football accounts for 694 suspicious matches, or 77 percent of the total, followed by basketball with 62 and tennis with 53.
This means one in every 200 football matches monitored by Sportradar in 2021 was suspected of being influenced by match-fixing.
The propensity for betting-related corruption is closely tied to the level of gambling associated with a sport. So while snooker’s risk is not as high as some other sports, “it does have a very consistent and very strong global betting coverage”, according to Mace, largely due to the fact that it is popular in places where there is a well-developed betting culture.
As an individual sport, snooker is vulnerable to fixing as a single player has a greater influence on a match than in team sports. While match-fixing is a global phenomenon – Sportradar’s report found Europe accounted for more than half of fixed matches – there is a perception that Asian snooker players touring far from home are susceptible to approaches from criminals.
“The 10 players who’ve been suspended are all young Chinese players,” said Snooker Scene’s Stead.
“They’re thousands of miles away from home, a lot of the time their English isn’t particularly good, they’ve only got each other for company and they’re not being managed particularly well.
“That leaves them very vulnerable to being approached by well-connected people from the Chinese criminal fraternity,” added Stead.
“The implication has been that these young Chinese players had been told there would be unpleasant consequences for themselves and their families if they didn’t do as they were told.”
An independent hearing will evaluate the evidence against the 10 players, who face lengthy bans from the sport if they are found guilty.
Meet Mohammad Ikram, Pakistan’s armless snooker sensation. pic.twitter.com/9dsPfPIgoT
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) November 29, 2020
There are also concerns about the effect the scandal could have on the sport’s following in its largest market.
“Yan Bingtao is spearheading a generation of Chinese players at the moment who are said to be the future of the sport, so this news comes as quite a disappointment, mainly to [fans in] China who follow these players and hold them in high regard,” said Shabnam Younus-Jewell, host of the BBC’s Framed podcast.
“Over in China, because snooker is such a massive sport out there – they absolutely love it, kids play it in schools – there will be a real feeling of dread there about what’s going on,” she added.
“This feels like a huge investigation, one of the biggest carried out by the WPBSA, and there’s a feeling – people have called it a dark day but it could be more than that … It’s a really difficult and quite a murky situation.”
Many acknowledge that the WPBSA has done much in recent years to tackle corruption, with clear rules and methods for informing the authorities about approaches to throw games.
“If you are approached you’re supposed to inform them using a confidential phone line or email address and the procedures make it very clear that if you are found guilty you will face a very long ban, which will ruin your career,” Stead said.
However, the disparity in earnings between those at the top of the sport and those who fail to progress in tournaments is thought to be an element driving corruption. Of the 130 players on snooker’s main tour, fewer than half earned more than 40,000 pounds ($49,600) prize money last season, from which travel and accommodation costs must be paid.
“For risk profile, we look at the betting coverage versus the wealth of the athletes, how much money players earn,” said Mace.
“In snooker, the top 16 are fairly comfortable but if you look at the prize money distribution and players’ earnings, once you’re outside of the top 16 or top 32, these players are not making huge money.”
“We live in a dreamworld, if we think we can eradicate [corruption] completely, there still needs to be a greater investment in this on a global scale. It’s now on the agenda and there are not many sports that don’t recognise it as something they need to tackle and invest in but still the money needs to improve,” Mace added.