Snooker is a great sport and it’s our time to shine, says WPBSA chief Jason Ferguson
SNOOKER will be the first sport to return to free-to-air television today when a special Championship League event begins in Milton Keynes.
The tournament will be played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, with strict social distancing measures in place throughout the venue. ITV4 will have comprehensive coverage every day, starting with world champion Judd Trump in action this afternoon.
And Jason Ferguson, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (pictured), told Metro: ‘We’re very proud to be the first out of the traps and get going. Actually, I think it is time for snooker to shine more than it ever has before.
‘We are a great British sport. We are sometimes a little bit undervalued as a great sport. We’re very proud to put it on television. We’ll do a great job, I know we will, and our players will perform and entertain as they’ve always done.’
Ferguson also admitted the tournament would be used as something of a rehearsal for the World Championship at the Crucible, which is scheduled to start on July 31.
The Championship League event was originally due to be played at Leicester’s Morningside Arena, but was switched to the Marshall Arena at the Stadium MK complex because there is a hotel on site, helping to comply with government regulations. Players will all be tested the night before their matches, and they will be expected to wear masks when not in action.
‘This event is a major test,’ Ferguson said. ‘It will test the team to the limit, of controlling this environment and doing it properly. I think we will learn a lot from it. We will be very strict. It will set us up for a world championship, and possibly pulling a tour championship in too.
‘It’s not straightforward. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s difficult, but we’ve got great people around us. To be able to do this is the right thing to do.
‘The best outcome for us is to finish this season properly, not cut off halfway through and decide we couldn’t finish it. If we can finish this season properly, I think we will have done extremely well.’
One of the major problems in organising the forthcoming world championship is making sure that all the overseas players are able to make it back to Britain for the event, especially with the 14-day quarantine period coming into effect. Ferguson is all too aware of the complications, but maintains the target is to get every player to Sheffield.
‘We’ll be very disappointed if we couldn’t get every player back, we’re going for 100 per cent,’ he said. ‘I know it’s a tall ask, but that’s what we’re going for.’
As for the qualifiers, Ferguson expects them to start in the middle of July — most likely on 16, 17, or 18 — and the target is still for them to be played in Sheffield.
‘The ideal scenario is that the qualifiers will take place at the English Institute of Sport, which is where they normally take place,’ he said. ‘We’re still subject to policies around indoor sports facilities. We are talking to the government about the soft opening of sports facilities indoors. We’re subject to those government guidelines. If we have to look at alternatives we will, but the first port of call is Sheffield.
‘It’s the home of the World Snooker Championship, and it’s the home from when the first ball is hit, not just from the Crucible Theatre. And I think it will always be the home. No decisions have been taken yet. Our view is to press ahead and do the whole thing in Sheffield.’
Ferguson also said ‘it may be possible’ for small crowds to be in attendance at the Crucible, potentially even as high as 30 per cent.
Before all that later this summer, Milton Keynes awaits, and with various other major sports yet to return in Britain, a new audience could be attracted to snooker over the next 11 days. A host of star names are in action, including Trump, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby (pictured above), Neil Robertson and Stuart Bingham.
And Ferguson, who is celebrating ten years in his second spell as chairman of the WPBSA, said: ‘For those people that are casual viewers, I would say embrace this great sport, it will embrace you.
‘You have two players in an arena that are battling it out. It is gladiatorial, it creates edge of the seat drama. The most bizarre things happen at the most bizarre moments. I’ve never in all these years seen two matches the same.
‘The one thing we know about snooker is the audience grows throughout the day and throughout the evening, and that’s because people get engaged in it, and it gets to the point that they can’t turn it off.’
Three-time world champion Selby, who plays on Thursday, is another who believes this is the ideal opportunity for snooker to win itself some new fans.
‘I think we could attract a lot of new followers,’ he said. ‘People are sitting at home, crying out for sport to be on TV.
‘At the moment all we have is highlights from different sporting events over the years that everyone has already seen. Snooker has a big following anyway, but this could attract a new fanbase.’
ITV has won praise from loyal snooker fans in recent years for its excellent coverage of the sport. Jill Douglas will present the Championship League coverage from her home, with regular pundits Neal Foulds, Alan McManus and Stephen Hendry.
The commentators describing the action — David Hendon, Phil Yates, Dominic Dale and Ken Doherty — will be at the venue.
Hendon said: ‘It’s going to feel very different for everyone, but it’s an opportunity for snooker to demonstrate not only how to operate in a safe environment, but to prove once again what a perfect sport it is for television.
‘I think there’s a real desire from everyone in snooker to make this a success and therefore make it possible for more tournaments to go ahead, particularly the world championship.’
Meanwhile, a few of those involved in the first day(s) are already at the venue, and the initial feedback is that the swab up the nostrils is a particularly unplreasant experience… hopefully it won’t deter anyone to try and play in the tournament.