The announcement of a pilot programme acting as a test run for the return of spectators to live sport in the UK was announced on Friday.
There looks set to be a Crucible crowd in Sheffield this year after all, following the UK government’s announcement that the World Championship will be used in its new testing scheme.
Along with events staged in horse racing and cricket, a certain number of fans will be allowed to attend the venue stages of the upcoming World Championship.
The Crucible can house just under 1,000 guests, but it is expected that considerably less will be permitted inside the arena at any given time.
As with what has become the norm, social distancing and isolation measures will have to be strictly adhered to.
Supporters who already bought tickets for the tournament that was originally scheduled for April and May have been encouraged in recent weeks to enter a ballot, should the option of having a Crucible crowd be made possible.
The news raises quite a few questions as the 17-day snooker bonanza draws to within a fortnight of finally commencing – primarily, is it worth the risk?
Let’s start with some of the positives.
There are obviously several significant reasons why World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn has been so keen on getting a Crucible crowd on the agenda.
Ticket sales at the World Championship are a big deal so this announcement will mean that at least a percentage can remain sold, simultaneously somewhat opening up the box office for 2021 after the promise was previously made to this year’s ticket-holders that they could choose to defer until next year’s tournament.
The importance of having an atmosphere cannot be underestimated as well, both in terms of inside the Crucible itself and how fans watching from home respond to the action.
The Championship League and the Tour Championship in June were both completed without any major hitches, and the organisers deserve a lot of credit for that.
But while fans were able to watch the sport, many felt that the lack of an ambience detracted from the overall spectacle.
A reduced Crucible crowd may not be able to produce a spine-tingling atmosphere akin to how it would feel when it’s packed full, but there is a sense that it’s certainly better than nothing.
With the event broadcast around the world, it’s important when snooker has been given this unique opportunity to showcase the sport as well as possible.
Indeed, a crowd should add to the excitement and drama that will inevitably be conjured up by the players themselves during the 17-day marathon of the mind.
For Judd Trump – and all of the other competitors in the field – the world number one will at least have the opportunity on July 31st of receiving a hearty reception upon being announced into the arena as the reigning world champion.
Yet, it would be totally naive and remiss to completely ignore the potential problems that are attached to this move.
Even if social distancing is followed, tests are given, masks are worn, and hands are sanitised, the reality is that health and safety cannot be guaranteed.
The UK is still in a situation where it is recovering from the pandemic, with several hundred new cases being reported everyday.
What happens if one supporter brings the virus inside the venue? What happens if there is a mini cluster?
In a sport that is notorious for sneezing and coughing, how are people going to react inside the small confines of the Crucible?
Will masks be worn diligently, or will the confusingly ridiculous advice from the UK government that it is merely “encouraged” in certain, and often bizarre, situations be followed?
The rescheduled World Championship was already a huge undertaking, and against a lot of odds WST and WPBSA had appeared to be pulling it off – particularly following the successful stagings of those tournaments last month.
Yet, what was already an enormous task is going to be made even harder as a consequence of this decision.
It’s worth remembering that the World Championship isn’t a one-day event, where a trial like this one would make more sense.
As the plan will likely be implemented for the full show, there will be fans moving in and out of the Crucible Theatre for 17 days, at any which point an infection could put the entire event in jeopardy.
If a player contracts COVID-19, presumably he or she will automatically have to withdraw, which would be a farce in terms of the integrity of the competition.
The players will obviously be kept inside their own bubble and as far away as possible from the fans at all times.
With the Crucible being infamously small, though, it’s not beyond the realms of chance that one of them ends up testing positive regardless of the distancing regulations imposed.
Five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan has already stated this week that he would consider withdrawing if permission was granted for a Crucible crowd.
O’Sullivan was reported as saying: “I don’t think there should be any crowds in an indoor area until at least 2021 and, to me, it seems insane that we are even talking about it.”
Many people will respond, rightly in some respects, that life must get back to normal eventually.
This is completely true, but the question here isn’t if a successful undertaking of this challenge is possible or not, it’s whether or not it’s worth the risk.
Of course, the dream scenario is that everything runs smoothly and without a hitch, but how likely is that?
Snooker’s authorities already gambled by being one of the first sports to return from the enforced lockdown – a decision that so far has paid off.
Whether or not the approval of a Crucible crowd, and the willingness to act as the government’s guinea pig, will ultimately prove to be one bet too far remains to be seen.