Zhao Songrui, who coaches snooker in the western city of Chengdu, said a Chinese world champion would be a “great boost” for a country that has embraced cue sports like no other. As the sport’s flagship event begins on Saturday, he may soon get his wish.

The annual world snooker championship will be held at its traditional UK home over the next two weeks, but the biggest interest by far will be in China, where top-name matches will be followed by rapt audiences from Shanghai to Shenzhen.

The rapid growth of snooker in China adds to what is already a significant commercial opportunity in the world’s most populous country. An estimated 50m players regularly pick up a cue in China.

The number of Chinese people watching the big events on television has dwarfed the populations of most European countries for decades. An estimated 150m people will follow this year’s competition on state-owned CCTV, with an even larger audience keeping up with the action on mobile phones over the season.

“We’re seeing some absolutely massive amounts of online viewership,” said Miles Pearce, commercial director at World Snooker, which runs global tournaments for the sport. “Two or three years ago it [mobile viewing] wasn’t even a market for us. Now I think we’re going to have 500m video views online just in China alone.”

Children play snooker in Gansu province

About a third of the events on the world snooker tour take place in China, including the Shanghai Masters and Evergrande China Championship which is sponsored by one of the country’s largest property developers.

Pearce said the sport was looking to stage even more events in the country when coronavirus travel restrictions are eased. He pointed to lucrative partnerships with Chinese companies including Xingpai, a manufacturer of the sport’s distinctive green tables.

The rise of snooker echoes a broader push from the Chinese government to increase its presence in global sports, especially football, though the country’s league has come under financial pressure as a result of its ties to major conglomerates.

One feature of the game in China has been the sheer number of young players. A specialist academy in Beijing, which opened in 2013 and was supported by former world champion Steve Davis, has propelled a host of younger players on to the global scene.

China’s world championship hopes this year will rest on the shoulders of Yan Bingtao, the 21-year-old snooker prodigy who won the prestigious Masters tournament in January. There is also the veteran Ding Junhui, the first Chinese player to gain global recognition in the sport.

Twenty-three Chinese, out of the 128 total, are playing on the world tour while five of the 32 competitors in this year’s world championship are from China.

Ding Junhui at the World Championship Snooker in 2017

The rise of elite snooker players is just one element of the growth of cue sports in China, itself part of a period of intense urbanisation and a lightning shift in recreational opportunities that is still far from complete.

Snooker, which originated in the British military in 19th century colonial India, and the similar game of pool have emerged as popular pastimes in China’s fast-evolving culture. Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai can boast hundreds of snooker and pool halls.

In one air-conditioned basement pool club in Beijing, players check their phones between visits to the tables.

One young professional originally from Hebei province and her friend — who said they would tune in to watch the snooker this weekend — noted that the surroundings were a far cry from when they played on outdoor tables in the 1990s, even in the depths of winter.

“None of those is still around these days,” said one of them, eyeing the next shot.

Pearce cautioned there was no certainty that China would dominate the sport despite the investment, highlighting the expansion of the game to other new markets such as India, its popularity in Germany and eastern Europe, as well as its enduring strength in the UK. “I think there’s a lot of competition,” he said.

Yet he agreed it would be “very, very big” for snooker in China if Yan could win the tournament.

The boss of one Shanghai snooker club doubted whether the youngster had what it takes to claim a first world crown for China, but was more effusive about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the six-time winner and reigning champion who begins his defence on Saturday. “He’s just cool . . . I watch him play and learnt a lot,” he said.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai