Jason Ferguson talks World Championship crowds, qualifiers, tour cards and mental health
The 2021 World Snooker Championship gets underway next month and it is a very busy time of year for the sport’s administrators, no more so than WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson.
We caught up with Jason to talk through a range of issues going on in the snooker world and his plans for the coming days, weeks and months as the sport hopes to edge back to normality.
World Championship qualifiers
Last year’s qualifiers were shortened to best of 11-frame matches until the final round which extended to a best of 19 and we are likely to see that format return this time round (7-14 April).
Ferguson explained: ‘It’s likely to be the same format as last year. Obviously the best of 19s is the best format we can do in the World Championships.
‘With things as they are, we’re still not out of the woods in this country, we’ve got to be sensible about times, dates, travel, everybody’s commitments. It may be the case that we end up with the qualifiers like we did last year. We haven’t finalised it yet, so I can’t give a firm yes or no on that.
‘The qualifiers will be in Sheffield. We’ve always used our best endeavours for them to be in Sheffield. It isn’t the one event with 32 players, it’s the whole event with 144 players in it, it’s a real story from start to finish and, for me, it has to be in the same place.
‘Sheffield is the ideal place because of the Crucible, but also the Institute of Sport, all the hotels and infrastructure. It’s such a cosmopolitan city now, and we’ve partly been responsible for that, so many players coming from overseas.’
Crowds at the World Championship
World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn has said the Crucible could welcome a crowd back, with the World Championship (17 Apr – 3 May) used as a pilot event.
‘We have spoken to the government about it, we are extremely positive about it,’ said Ferguson. ‘I’ve personally written to the Sports Minister about it and we have a track record of running safe events now.
‘We are aware that the government are looking at pilot projects, so it would seem to us a perfect time for that to be a pilot event. Nothing is fixed or confirmed, but we are having positive discussions about it and I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to do that.
‘How we would do that will be working with the government in order to make sure we’re delivering a safe event. It’s early days but talks are going on, directly with the sports minister and DCMS as well.
‘Last time it got cut short because things were escalating. We’re in different times now, things seem to be going in the right direction, there’s also mass testing now which wasn’t there before. We’ve got the ability to mass test as well because we’ve been doing it since day one of the season. We’re testing all the players and officials all the time, which has been a key element to running a safe tour.
‘But at the same time we’re subject to independent advice, medical advisors, who we abide by 100%. The decision will not be ours, we’ll put forward what we can deliver and then the decision will be out of our hands but we are thinking positively about it.’
Three-time ranking event winner has not been able to play this year due to travel restrictions from Hong Kong and is set to lose his tour card, but that situation looks likely to be resolved for him.
‘There is a problem with travel out of Hong Kong at the moment, it’s extremely complicated and it’s purely down to safety measures,’ said Jason. ‘That’s why we’ve not had Marco Fu coming over who we’ve dearly missed, a great guy and a great player.
‘[On a possible invitational tour card] ‘That’s an easy one to answer. Marco couldn’t travel, he was prevented from competing and I think our recommendation there is that an invitational tour card will be put in place for Marco.
‘There will be one or probably two invitational cards next season and, for my money, we can safely say Marco will likely be getting one.’
Tour cards for Reanne Evans and Ng On-Yee
Two-year tour cards were awarded to the top two players in the women’s world rankings, Reanne Evans and Ng On-Yee earlier this week.
‘The women’s decision is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, in my view, I think we’ve got this bang right,’ said Ferguson.
‘The message from me is clear, I think women have been at a distinct disadvantage in this sport for many years. Not because they’ve not been allowed to play, but the environment has predominantly been a men’s environment and many of the clubs have not been places they would want to go to.
‘That disadvantage has been taken into consideration in this decision, there are less women playing snooker than men, by a mile, and that needs to change.
‘This is how to change it. Inspire the next generation. There’s overwhelming support for it worldwide and it’s only going to take this sport further forward.’
Early plans for next season
Nothing is confirmed about next season’s calendar yet, but the WPBSA chairman is extremely positive about a return to China for big events again.
‘China is easing a little bit. We are talking to China at length about when we can start again and the mood is very good for the sport out there,’ he said.
‘The numbers have been brilliant, Yan [Bingtao] winning the Masters was massive.
‘It’s looking great, it’s just a case of what comes first. Do we pull a China event in early or push it later into the season?
‘We’re in good shape, we’ve got options to choose from, but it’s more about international travel than anything else at the moment.
‘But we’re in a fortunate situation where we can move events, subject to broadcasters’ approval, but it’s looking good.’
The mental health of players
Many players have struggled in the last year with mental health issues of varying degrees and the WPBSA has systems in place to help anyone struggling.
Jason explains: ‘Part of a major constitutional change at the WPBSA last year was to improve player services, we’ve really stepped that up during lockdown. Its very important to us that we take care of our player membership.
‘If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s to serve our snooker players. I was once one of those and I know what it’s like. To give them what I need is something I really take seriously.
‘The restructuring has seen us form the new Players’ Board, which Ken Doherty is chair of, and that engages with player services. There’s been a few calls [on mental health] and I believe we’ve helped a few players.
‘It’s been a difficult year, sport is difficult at the best of time, mentally. The highs and lows are extreme, the ups and downs are difficult to manage. I do hope that we’ve been able to help people through a difficult time and we’ve tried our best to take care of our own people.
‘It’s painful. I remember playing [Stephen] Hendry at the Crucible and I put so much effort into winning that match and I lost. It was such a high being in the match, but I went home, closed the curtains and just couldn’t speak to anyone. The lows are so low. It’s something I’m always conscious of, especially in these circumstances of locking players in hotel rooms as they wait for Covid test results.
‘It’s been an unbelievable year. Let’s hope we can get our players back out in front of an audience again so they feel good about themselves. I’m amazed how well everyone’s performed in empty rooms, despite all the problems and how they feel is unbelievable.’
Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters
The big-money tournament in Riyadh was due to be held for the first time in October 2020.
‘We’re pushing, it will depend on international travel,’ said Jason. ‘We’ve got an agreement to go there, we’re very excited about doing it. It was the last overseas trip I did before lockdown, then it all came to a standstill.
‘It’s still in place, though, we’re just talking about dates so if it’s not next season it will certainly be the one after. It’s moving forward quite nicely.’
So here you go…
At the risk of being crucified, I do hope
- that the World qualifiers will be best of 19 in all rounds
- that there will be NO crowds at the Crucible or if there is, no more than 150, all tested, with glass isolating the players from the crowd
- that if the World qualifiers are held in Sheffield because “it’s ONE tournament” and “ONE story”, that will apply to all events in the future. No more qualifiers for Chinese events in the UK, or same, for the European/German Masters in the UK.
- that the event in Saudi Arabia will collapse. No sport with a moral compass should go there, and it’s likely to be a short format event for an obcene amount of money.
Now shoot me.