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.

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