The World Snooker Championship is going on full steam ahead and WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson is confident no player will be left out as he takes on a mission to get everyone back to Sheffield for the big one.
The biggest event in the sport is due to start at the Crucible on the rescheduled date of 31 July, but there has been an ongoing concern over players getting to the tournament, and doing so safely.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, players have returned to their home countries and getting them back into the UK to play snooker is no easy task with travel restricted and the 14-day quarantine coming into place in the UK in June
Holding the sport’s crown jewel event without a string of top players being able to get there would be far from ideal, and Ferguson is sure that it can be avoided.
The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chief says there is tireless work going on behind the scenes, and has been since lockdown began, to at least give players the option to play, if they want to.
‘We have a number of Chinese players out in China and we’re talking to government about how this is going to work,’ Ferguson told Metro.co.uk.
‘If we do the World Championship end of July, which we believe is full steam ahead at this moment in time, then we’ve got to consider the travel of those international players. How quarantine will work, where they will go, how they’ll get there, so we’re preparing processes for that.
‘I have to say that I’m very confident that we’ll have the opportunity to get everybody back. We have to consider that some people will not want to travel at this moment in time, and that has to be the player’s choice. But I think we will get to a point where every player can get back to the UK for the World Championships.
‘The list of complications is endless: visas, travel, quarantine, but it does look achievable and we’ve got a great team of people working on that at the WPBSA.
‘The first day of lockdown we did a location plan of every single player. Where are they? Are they okay? Tracked every player. Every player got home or chose to stay in the UK and there’s about 40 players out of the country, a mix between Europe and Asia, mainly. But we do think they will be able to return. If we do lose some it will probably be through players’ choice.’
World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn previously told Metro.co.uk that he may be forced into playing ranking events with a minimum of 75% of players in attendance, if the rest simply could not attend.
Ferguson does not want to see that situation happen, and is sure it won’t, but acknowledges that when a tournament is set in stone, it will go ahead with or without some people.
‘We certainly don’t want to go ahead without any player, which is why we’re doing this extensive work behind the scenes,’ the chairman continued.
‘But we’re full steam ahead, once you engage venues, broadcasters, contracts, it becomes a fact that the event is going to go ahead.
‘With a 14-day quarantine, players will have to be back earlier. We’ve contacted all those players and we do think the players can get back.
‘If that quarantine is a problem then we will try and work with the government to try and produce a safe plan for everybody. We don’t know how that would work, maybe one building that’s quarantined for our people. I don’t know.
‘We’re not sure how it’ll work. I think it’s 22 Chinese players in China. It might be the case that they all come back together on the same flight and have to be quarantined together.
‘If that’s a hotel and they have to have practice facilities then we’ll look at that as well. But then there’s getting tables in, table fitters, transport, the problems are endless.
‘The good thing is that we’re using independent advice and safety is paramount importance. We’ve got loads of energy for the sport and a lot of passion for it. We will investigate, find the pros and cons and get the answers. We’re working full on to get everybody back and we’ll give the players as much support as possible to do so.’
Snooker returns from the coronavirus hiatus on 1 June with the 64-man Championship League, behind closed doors, at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes and it will work as something of a test event for the World Championship.
There are extremely thorough health and safety practices laid out for the tournament, with all players being tested for COVID-19 and social distancing measures remaining in play.
The interest in the event has been widespread, with many big names getting involved, and Ferguson is hoping similar events can be put on for the players still abroad.
‘We will learn a lot over the next few weeks, we’re embarking on our first snooker event on 1 June, which will be a way of getting these processes 100% right and a lot of work is going into that,’ Jason said.
‘We appreciate we can’t get players back for this first ever but we are making the same offer overseas for groups of players to see if we can pull together some smaller events to keep them busy in the meantime. We’re considering everyone around the world, we care about everybody, we have to look at it globally.
‘The uptake in the Championship League has been extremely positive. Initially 77 players registered immediately. Outside of that, there are many more players that want to play.
‘We understand the problems of players overseas, 128 players on the tour and 40 of them are overseas, so that brings that number down and means the turnout is actually huge, a very high percentage for this event.
‘What has helped is the detail we’ve provided about the processes at the venue, it’s extreme caution and will be very carefully managed. I think that’s given the players confidence to go there.’
Away from the professional side of the game, the WPBSA has also been working hard to get snooker clubs across the country back on their feet as they have been closed throughout lockdown.
It is another huge slab of work going on behind the scenes which Ferguson feels is vital, not only for the continuation of the sport, but for the mental health of people who rely on going to play a few frames with their friends as a huge part of their social life.
‘We’ve been in contact with government to see how we can get players access to practice,’ he said. ‘Believe it or not most players’ have their practice tables in snooker clubs because they want to be in an environment around people, not locked in a room at home or in their garden. Less than 10 of our players, play at home, amazing.
‘That’s a process that’s been done. The second part of that is the soft opening of facilities so that people can use that as part of a safe get-out. There’s a lot of people stuck in their houses right now and it’s very concerning, the mental health side of things going on, and snooker is a major player in mental health support and a major player in getting an ageing population out and doing something together.
‘We’ve submitted the proposals and they have been looked at, we haven’t received anything back yet but we will be following up with government next week.
‘What I didn’t want was for snooker to fall under pub and club closures. People say “oh, it’s a bar isn’t it?” It’s not.
‘I didn’t want to see snooker left out when tennis courts, football pitches, basketball courts were reopening. What we have to do is create a safe environment: one-way systems, secure entry, people on the door managing numbers, every other table. It won’t be perfect, it might be difficult and it might be hard without the social side, but they are snooker clubs with a social element.’
Ferguson recently celebrated his 10th anniversary as WPBSA chairman in his second spell in the role.
A former player, his commitment to the game shines through from his relentless work, which he cannot wait to get back to in full when lockdown eases.
‘It does mean a lot to me,’ he said, on his longevity at the WPBSA. ‘I love my work, I’m really passionate about it.
‘It’ll be great to see people mixing again after this. The one thing I really value in this sport is the connectivity with people around the world.
‘I travel round the world alone a lot. Go anywhere in the world, get off a plane, find the people involved in your sport and you’ll be welcomed.
‘This whole process of lockdown has been a huge audit trail, for me. Looking at the work we do behind the scenes: are we doing it right? What can we do better?
‘It’s what I want to do with my life and I love it with a passion. The WPBSA, for me, is like a child and I want to make it bigger, better and stronger and we’re doing it.’
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