Why snooker takes the plaudits for breaking out of pandemic - Nick Westby

The June 1, 2020, edition of The Yorkshire Post’s Sports Monday supplement was rather a special one for members of HM YP sports desk.

BREAKING OUT: England's Mark Selby plays a shot during day 14 of the World Snooker Championships at The Crucible. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA

It was the first newspaper for 75 days in which we could preview actual live sport, following the first lockdown of society brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

The dark nights and cold weather of ‘lockdown three’ may be fresher in the mind but at least we had sport to keep us company from January to March. Premier League football, Test match cricket, Super League and Six Nations rugby all went ahead without fans but in a new acceptance of how life must be lived.

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But back in ‘lockdown one’ from March 23 to early June, 2020, there was nothing. No social contact, no restaurants, no school, no family visits and, most tellingly for a sports desk, no sport at all.

Breaking out: Snooker player David Grace.

This sports desk survived – its finest hour in my book – because we were inventive, we were flexible and we adapted.

It became clear quickly that whichever sport would display similar principles would be first out of the gate in getting back to business.

So on June 1, sport returned, two sports to be precise, snooker and racing.

Local professional golf tournaments would follow a week later, Premier League football by June 20, Formula 1 and Test match cricket in July, rugby league and even the Tour de France by late August.

MAKING IT HAPPEN: Snooker boss, Barry Hearn. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA

All of them have adapted to life without fans, to a life of regularly testing players and officials, to strict protocols for everyone from team owner to bus driver.

Because life had to move on. Broadcast money, people’s livelihoods, dictated that.

Nearly a year on, I am reminded of that positively vibrant edition of Sports Monday highlighted by a picture of Leeds cueman David Grace peering over a rack of red balls, by the fact that 980 people will be crammed into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield this afternoon and evening to watch the closing sessions of the World Snooker Championship final.

For my money, having spoken to countless officials and members across a full range of sports over the last 14 months, no sport has handled and adapted to the changing landscape created by Covid better than snooker.

BACK IN THE GAME: Fans, pictured during day 10 of the World Snooker Championships at The Crucible. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA

For an indoor sport, remember – surroundings in which you would think Covid would be transmitted more easily – snooker has truly led the way in getting back to normal.

The World Snooker Tour were the pioneers of the sporting biosecure bubble, creating an environment in which players were quarantined in a hotel, ferried into a sports hall to compete and returned to their rooms. As lockdown restrictions eased at varying times, so guidelines were loosened accordingly, but generally, they have managed to keep the show on the road with as clean a bill of health as possible.

There were exceptions, and it was not always easy for the players who were locked in a hotel room for days and weeks on end, but it kept players active, kept sponsors happy, broadcasters with something to show, fans something to watch and sports writers something to report on.

In the last 11 months, the World Snooker Tour has put on 21 tournaments up to and including this edition of the World Championship. The only tournaments that were cancelled were those scheduled to be played overseas.

Seventeen of the contested tournaments were staged in the same sports hall in Milton Keynes (including the German and Gibraltar Opens), two at Celtic Manor in Newport and two in Sheffield, both of which have been used as test events for the return of fans.

Back on July 31, on day one of the rearranged 2020 World Championship, a smattering of fans were allowed into the Crucible as part of the Government’s return to normality road map.

Within hours, though, Boris Johnson imposed a two-week circuit-breaker and the World Championships went behind closed doors, only for those doors to reopen for the final courtesy of the tournament lasting 17 days.

Nine months on and once again snooker’s World Championships is a test event for the return of fans. The Crucible may hold only 980 spectators, but the close-knit atmosphere is part of its charm and character and whenever the game’s governing body is encouraged to look at bigger venues to generate more money from its showpiece event, they stay loyal to tradition.

The tournament started with 33 per cent permitted attendance, and although some tickets went unsold in the first week with the logistics of nearby hotels and restaurants not being fully functional cited as a reason why, the final two sessions today are a sellout.

The game’s governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association deserves enormous credit for their work in bringing snooker back. Barry Hearn, the chairman of the World Snooker Tour, is the face of the game’s decision-makers and has been a driving force as ever but so too, has Jason Ferguson who, as chairman of the WPBSA, has played a key role negotiating with parliament to get snooker front and centre of the Government’s plans.

On Friday, culture secretary Oliver Dowden visited the Crucible to congratulate the snooker family for the role they have played at the forefront of sport’s return to normality.

So enjoy the drama of the final frames of the World Championship final unfold tonight, the closest thing we will have seen to sport being back to something how we remembered it. For that, snooker has our eternal gratitude.

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