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World Championship in July: Barry Hearn’s Greatest Gamble?

The announcement was made on Wednesday that the sport’s blue riband tournament has a new confirmed slot this summer.

The World Snooker Tour revealed yesterday that the 2020 World Championship has been rescheduled to begin on July 31st, running for the complete 17 days at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

The dates had already been secured with the venue, and WST succeeded in convincing the BBC and Eurosport to come on board with the idea to fill the slot that was lost following the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics.

The news created a frenzy on social media, with fans understandably getting excited about the prospect of the tournament – initially supposed to be ongoing right now – finally taking place.

But how realistic is it to undergo the huge task of putting on this event, when much of the world is still in lockdown fighting the COVID-19 pandemic?

Alongside its statement, WST provided the necessary caveats that could yet ultimately result in another delay or cancellation.

“WST’s preference is to stage the event with a full crowd inside the iconic Crucible Theatre, which seats an audience of just under 1,000 spectators,” read the official release.

“If that is not possible, based on government advice at the time, WST will consider the following options:

  • Playing the event with a reduced crowd.
  • Playing the event behind closed doors.
  • Postponing the event to a later date again.

“The dates for the qualifying rounds have yet to be confirmed.”

While it would be easy to get lost in the headline that the World Championship is back on the calendar, there are several massive stumbling blocks in the way that need mentioning.

The first and most obvious one is that there is currently no way of knowing with any degree of certainty what the situation in the UK will be like at the end of July.

As it stands, the UK is regularly reporting among the highest number of daily coronavirus cases.

If this figure was low it’d be one thing, but the fact that it is still up in the several thousands mark on a regular basis is quite another.

Whether or not the UK is at its peak worst or if that’s still to come is also debatable, which could extend the period in which the government has to enforce its restrictions.

Comparing the UK to Italy or Spain – two countries that also experienced huge outbreaks in Europe but initiated a lockdown much sooner – doesn’t help to paint a picture of speed with regard recovery.

Comparing the UK to a country like South Korea, where I have been fortunate to live through this rare situation, would offer even less hope of a quick turnaround of things getting back to normal.

There has been no lockdown in Korea, primarily because of the speed in which the goverment initially reacted to the crisis, but everyone remains on high alert despite the fact that the daily number of infected cases here has dropped from a high of 851 in March to a low this week of just eight.

Sports events, like Korea’s popular KBO baseball league, are going to restart in May but only behind closed doors.

This scenario, out of them all, is probably the most optimistic that WST has at its disposal.

With just over three months for things to settle down, it seems feasible to host 32 players and all the officials at a behind-closed-doors Crucible Theatre.

However, that’s where we come to major problem number two – the qualifiers.

As there are only 16 competitors guaranteed automatic tickets to the first round proper, the remaining 16 slots must be determined by a qualifying competition.

On the regular calendar, this would have taken eight days, and if the same format is used it’s surely impossible to shorten that spell.

That then, potentially crucially, brings forward the actual start date of July 31st to somewhere back towards the middle of July instead.

Dozens of professional players on the Main Tour, not to forget the amateurs who have been invited to compete in the preliminary stages, hail from overseas.

Travel restrictions, particularly getting into the UK, could be in place at that point, meaning players arriving might have to undergo self-isolation or quarantine measures – like what has already been implemented as an automatic rule in a lot of nations – before being able to enter competition.

For these players then, the actual start date is brought forward further from the middle of July to the very start of the month.

What is WST’s plan if even one of these international players can’t be accommodated?

What kind of message about the sport being global is that going to send if the outcome of this year’s World Championship is hindered by restrictions, with a significant advantage geared to those based in the UK?

“It is crucial for our 128 tour players to know that we are doing everything we can to get our circuit going again as soon as it is considered safe to do so by the government,” World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn said.

“The players are self-employed and they need opportunities to earn, while we keep the health and safety of everyone involved in an event of this scale as a priority.

“In recent weeks we have had intricate negotiations with our key broadcasters including the BBC and Eurosport as well as the Crucible itself and Sheffield City Council.

“I would like to express my gratitude to all of them as we have progressed to a solution.

“Our sincere hope is that we are able to play the tournament with a full crowd as usual.

“This event means so much to the fans who have a golden ticket for the Crucible experience, and to the people of Sheffield.

“The players will desperately want to compete in the atmosphere that only a packed Crucible can generate.”

Hearn is a prosperous and opportunistic businessman, and there’s no doubting the fact that he has got to where he is today by taking a few worthwhile risks.

Yet, this must be regarded as his greatest gamble yet becaause if everything falls into place he’ll be lauded as a genius.

Staging the World Championship in the middle of a sports-barren period would be a coup heralded as a masterstoke.

But equally there’ll be labels of foolhardy should the seemingly very likely materialise and a second cancellation take place.

Some people will argue that he may as well take the chance because a lot of the above arguments present a case of “what if”, which is somewhat fair.

But the cost of something going wrong – an embarrassing second postponement, players forced to withdraw, or worse still players or fans getting infected because the event is being staged at a risky time – would leave the sport nursing self-inflicted wounds of its own.

We haven’t even touched on the possibility of the event starting and then being cancelled midway through due to a rise in infections, or even the more mundane issues like access to accommodation for the players.

Put simply, there are too many variables to consider.

Of course, only time will tell how this saga will play out, time which is in short supply between now and the new summer slot for the 2020 World Championship.

Featured photo credit: WPBSA


  1. Rudy Bauwens

    If needed, I see several ways of making things less complicated in order to get the WC staged:

    For instance (rough idea):

    1) cancel the qualifiers
    2) make the draw for the Crucible with the current top-32 in the world rankings. If numbers 22, 25 and 28 can not make it to Sheffield because of travel or quarantaine restrictions, then numbers 33, 34, 35 will be invited to take their spots and to fill up the draw.
    3) make a 50/50 break in the prize money: half of the money goes to the players competing, half to those have to watch the WC because of cancellation of the qualifiers.
    4) no ranking points to be won for those who play in the Crucible; only money and the trophy.
    5) therefore: no top-64 cut at the end of the season. Everybody stays on the Tour until the end of 2020-21.
    6) expand the number of players on the Tour to some 150 for the next season (adding the qualifiers from the Challenge Tour and the other usual championships). This will mean some extra qualifying rounds for some in the tournaments of next season, but so be it.
    7) at the Crucible: there must be a way to fit at least a third of the usual number of spectators and to create some kind of atmosphere. Do not forget that the Augusta National uses special chemicals to make their ponds look brighter at the Masters. I’m sure somebody could enhance the applause from the 333 spectators with some ‘hand clapping’ on tape.

    Of course: the best would be to have the qualifiers and to run things as normal, but if one has to choose between a ‘restricted WC’ and no WC at all, I know what I would go for.

    Let’s keep fingers crossed. Keep safe and healthy, and enjoy the day.

    Rudy Bauwens – Dutch Eurosport commentator

  2. Yes, I agree with Rudy. Of course it is a big gamble because of the huge uncertainty. But the stakes are high whatever he does – cancelling completely is even more of a gamble, with massive financial implications. At some point, live sport will start again. If snooker isn’t one of the first then it would look like huge incompetence – snooker should be easy compared to football, say.

    Most of the foreign players have left the UK. Many of the Chinese players have had all kinds of nightmares with travelling and quarantines (there’s one player still in quarantine after 4 weeks). It’s unlikely they would consider going through all that again and could be absent until 2021. Players based in Europe might have it a bit easier, but it’s still uncertain. Of the top-16, Ding Junhui is almost certainly out, but Mark Allen, Shaun Murphy and Yan Bingtao should be OK.

    With so many withdrawals, the qualifiers could be cut to 6 days, assuming the 12 tables are still possible. I’m not convinced about ‘social distancing’ inside the Crucible. Possibly by August the rules will be more like ‘limiting large gatherings’, which would imply closed doors. You can probably play with one table and around 10 people onsite; two tables is much more of a challenge. Any public event or a gathering of more than 50 would require police and medics to be available – unlikely to gain approval. I think there is still a possibility of a top-16 event. This would allow players and officials to be shuttled to a dedicated hotel, and possibly antigen testing for coronavirus.

    At this stage I expect the negotiations and provisional approval to just be focused on dates (Crucible and TV scheduling). The structure of the event and qualifiers probably isn’t top of the agenda. Their primary objective is to rescue the 17-day World Championship, keep snooker alive, and fulfil their contractual obligations.

    Please keep us informaed about South Korea – it’s a very important benchmark thanks.

  3. Duncan birss

    I think as said hearn is right to try

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