2020 Highs and Lows: Part One

It’s an opportunity to reflect on what has been a strange year in the game.

It’s time for the annual highs and lows on SnookerHQ, and there are many talking points over the course of 2020 to recall.

On Thursday, we’ll take a look at a few of the best bits from this calendar year, but today let’s focus on some of the disappointing or controversial matters that have engulfed the sport.

The Lows

Cancel Culture

It almost goes without saying that the majority of the two-part feature this year is going to focus on the ongoing issues surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19.

When the virus was still perceived as being limited to China or Asia, the signs of what were to transpire to happen came early with the postponement – and ultimate cancellation – of the China Open in Janaury.

Unfortunately, that was only the beginning, and by March as the pandemic spread all around the world it was clear that many more tournaments would follow suit.

Amid somewhat chaotic circumstances, the Gibraltar Open was the last to fully conclude with players subsequently scrambling back to their respective homes in time for the impending widespread lockdown that would be experienced in a lot of nations.

The Tour Championship and the World Championship were both temporarily scratched off the 2019/20 calendar, which for the latter meant there was no spring action at the Crucible for the first time.

Things slowly got going again from June, and the Sheffield bonanza was reshuffled for a summer slot that coincided with the postponed Olympic Games.

Yet, several additional problems snookered any hopes of a return to normality.

Barry the Bully

People can cry ‘hindsight’ if they wish, but for anybody with a degree of nous it was painfully obvious that snooker’s inclusion in a government pilot scheme to get fans back into sporting venues was premature madness.

World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn jumped at the opportunity when snooker, alongside cricket and horse racing, was among the first sports to be granted access to a limited number of fans in the summer.

The Crucible was to run at one-third capacity for the World Championship, but a rise in nationwide cases led to a rapid rethink.

With the scheme abruptly postponed by the UK government, the World Championship entertained fans for just the first and last two days of the competition, which actually was probably a blessing in disguise.

The social distancing guidelines were suspect at best, with the fans that were allowed in bafflingly not required to wear a mask while seated inside an enclosed humid arena.

A cluster crisis may well have been averted, but Hearn’s obsession with being the fastest, the brashest, and the boldest left a sour taste.

There’s an argument that Hearn was only following guidelines, but snooker didn’t have to take part in a scheme that was obviously putting both players and fans alike at risk.

Hearn, who himself gave everyone a fright with a minor heart attack in April, has been a terrific chairman for the sport since he took over at the helm a decade ago, and other aspects of the this year’s recovery will be praised in tomorrow’s piece.

But his public bully-like treatment of Anthony Hamilton, who made what was obviously an agonising decision to withdraw from the World Championship in fear for his health, despite having qualified for the first time in 12 years, was unsavoury for a man acting as the figurehead of the sport.

Hearn has been back in the headlines this week for lambasting his poor luck in having to stage the upcoming Masters at the Alexandra Palace behind closed doors as well.

It’s undoubtedly unfortunate, but acting as though he’s the only one affected doesn’t sit particularly well.

Empty Pockets

In Hearn’s defence, a lot of the prize money for the second half of this year has effectively come from his wallet.

Not being able to entertain fans at the venues and the reduced income that comes from selling those tickets are, of course, major concerns.

Perhaps an even bigger problem down the road will be that of sponsorship, which has taken a noticeable hit during the pandemic.

Big tournaments like the World Championship and the UK Championship were able to maintain their respective long-term backers, Betfred and Betway.

But the Home Nations and the formerly-known Coral Series – which included last week’s World Grand Prix – have all suffered from abandonment.

Instead, Hearn’s own Matchroom firm has had to step up as the title sponsor, which is just another financial headache to add to the list that also includes the fact that there are definitely no Chinese events on the 2020/21 calendar.

One of the most lucrative events ever was additionally scheduled for Saudi Arabia this year, but that has obviously been delayed as well.

Through Hearn’s effective business strategy, snooker has manoeuvred itself into a position of strength in recent years and the powers are quick to quell any fears of a lasting crisis, but the sooner the sport can get back to a degree of normality in terms of being a worldwide product that can be externally bankrolled, the better.

The Fans

As much as it’s the right thing not to welcome crowds at this time, there’s no doubting the truth that events are simply not as special without them.

Between June and December, around a dozen tournaments were staged and people were only allowed in to see those few short days at the Crucible.

In many respects, the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes has become both the saviour and the graveyard of the sport.

Week after week, particularly in the last couple of months, there has been a conveyor belt of tournaments staged at the multiplex.

There’s no denying that this has been integral for players, and indeed a lot of the support staff, in staying afloat through what has been a desperately trying period.

But in a purely sporting sense, the action on the baize has at times become monotonous and uninspiring to follow.

Try as they might to alter the production and stage lighting, there’s no getting away from the reality that it’s still Milton Keynes and there remains no fans.

This isn’t really a fault of anybody but merely a consequence of circumstance in that it can’t be any other way at present.

Indeed, there was the expected confirmation on Tuesday that several upcoming tournaments in 2021 – including the German Masters and the Shoot Out – will also be behind closed doors in Milton Keynes.

Everyone looks forward to the day when the likes of Trump, O’Sullivan, Selby, or Robertson can raise a trophy aloft to the backdrop of cheering fans again.

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