The Championship League has been confirmed for a June 1st start in Milton Keynes.
After more than two months in which sport has taken a backseat to the outbreak of COVID-19, snooker will provide the first event after the lockdown in the UK.
The Championship League, which will be aired on ITV4, will begin on the first day of June and is set to feature 64 competitors.
Previously planned for Leicester, the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes has instead been chosen as the host venue as it has on-site accommodation.
That will allow the authorities to ensure that each entrant can follow the strict isolation and social distancing measures.
All players will be tested for the coronavirus before being able to enter the competition and the venue.
Judd Trump, who won the last event in March when he triumphed in the Gibraltar Open, is set to be among the field alongside the likes of Neil Robertson, Mark Allen, and Kyren Wilson.
The Championship League has been run as an invitational event annually since 2008 and is well-suited to these unusual circumstances as it has always been played behind closed doors.
That means that there aren’t as many people required at the venue as there normally would be at other major tournaments.
There will, however, be small tweaks to the format, and the first event after the lockdown will feature three group phases in total.
The first phase will include all 64 players being separated into 16 groups of four, with three points awarded for a win and one point for a draw.
Only two groups – so eight players – will take part on each of the first eight days, with the action taking place on two tables.
The 16 group winners will subsequently advance to phase two, in which there will be four further groups of four players.
Those subsequent winners will proceed to the final group, where £30,000 is on offer for the champion on June 11th.
A Matchroom Sport event and with no ranking points available, the Championship League will not influence survival on the Main Tour or qualification for the World Championship.
WST chairman Barry Hearn and his team deserve a lot of credit for the hard work they have put into bringing the sport back so quickly – particularly getting the likes of ITV on board, which will provide presentation and commentary coverage in addition to the daily live snooker.
Hearn, who had a minor heart attack in April, has proven himself to be an opportunistic businessman and masterful promoter in the past, so it’s no surprise that he has taken his opportunity to steal a march on his competitors.
For the players, it’s fantastic that they have an opportunity to once again earn a living from their profession, and the addition of the on-site accommodation should ease some of their concerns regarding isolation measures.
Still, questions will undoubtedly arise, notably how players from outside the UK might be left behind in the current scheme and whether that’s appropriate for a sport that has always spouted ambitions of being more global in the last decade.
With a 14-day quarantine and self-isolation period becoming mandatory for overseas arrivals into the UK, this may become even more of an issue with regard the upcoming World Championship and especially its qualifiers – albeit the UK government’s implementation of this perplexingly appears to be relaxed, to put it mildly.
Hearn did previously suggest that options were being explored for those international members of the tour, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes of that in the near future.
With there still being thousands of positive coronavirus tests daily in the UK, there will be some who believe that it is too soon for any sport to be played.
Others, of course, will feel that some form of regularity should return and this would in turn provide a welcome distraction from the doom and gloom of 2020 so far.
A lot of things remain uncertain, but it looks nailed on now that the Championship League will be the first event after the lockdown that is back on the sporting calendar.
Just doing my job.
— Barry Hearn (@BarryHearn) May 21, 2020
Hearn said: “During the challenging times of the past few weeks we have examined the opportunities which still exist and worked relentlessly towards the goal of getting our tour going again.”
“While most other sports remain sidelined, we are ready to return from June 1st.
“This sends out a message to the sporting world that snooker is at the forefront of innovation.
“Our first priority has to be safety and we have had detailed discussions with government in creating a set of approved guidelines for the event which will be rigorously followed.
“We are making this very clear to the players and everyone working on the event.
“We will be the first major sport to get back to live televised action. That’s not by chance, it’s because of the hard work and preparation we have done during the lockdown to make sure we are ready to get going again as soon as it is legal.
“Liaising with government advisors, we have prepared highly detailed health and safety documents which will be followed to the letter during the tournament.
“These measures surpass any others made in any other professional sport right now.
“In particular, procedures are being put in place for testing players, staff and contractors, which ensure that we are doing everything possible to keep the event safe.
“Players who have any doubts about their own welfare can rest assured that all precautions are being taken.
“I am confident that there is no other major sport which can meet health and safety criteria on isolation and social distancing as stringently as snooker can, so we are able to return more quickly than others.”
Of course it’s a major boost for snooker to be the first to return to our television screens. The conditions look very safe, everyone is tested and looked after, and with people staying at home to watch, this could reduce virus transmissions everywhere! The players get to play 12 frames, live on TV, and then either go home or go into refrigeration for a few days upstairs in the hotel.
As for the overseas players and the global game, clearly the current situation makes it almost impossible to include all players, so I don’t think it will damage the perception of ‘WST’. The remark about ‘something for them’ doesn’t seem very feasible – I expect it to be quietly forgotten. Indeed, there haven’t been interviews with any of the 19 Chinese players who have left the UK. I have heard from a few of them and there have been some nightmare journeys (one player had to undergo two quarantines: after his international flight and then again after an internal flight to his hometown – a whole month in hotel isolation). Given that, it’s hard to see many wanting to come back any time this year.
Still, despite the limited format, this “Coronavirus Classic” may be remembered for a long time. Not for snooker reasons perhaps, but for sporting reasons.
I notice you are careful to say “in the UK” when making observations about the return of some sport. But Barry Hearn says “We will be the first major sport to get back to live televised action…” Did he not notice the Bundesliga?
Whilst it’s obviously commendable to give some professional players an earning opportunity, it does feel that this was done more for bragging rights.
Sure, Barry is a promoter, and we’d expect nothing less! Snooker can just about claim to be ‘international’ sport, even though most of the overseas players can’t make this event (Luca Brecel is facing a few challenges).
But this ‘Covid Classic’ is being held for many reasons, and certainly one of them is to try and promote the game at a time where there is definitely a void. Looking at it the other way around – if Premier League football was taking place and snooker still wasn’t, that would surely be terrible management by the WST.