World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn has moved to calm fears over the decision to allow fans at the upcoming World Championship, following strong criticism from Ronnie O’Sullivan and another player withdrawing from the event.
After fears it would be cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis, the tournament will get underway as planned on Friday, July 31 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, running until August 16.
And the decision has been made to sell tickets for the 17-day event, with a limited number of snooker fans permitted to watch from inside the famous venue.
The World Snooker Championship will be the country’s only indoor sports pilot event permitting a reduced capacity crowd during the pandemic, with up to 300 people per session at the venue, reduced from the usual capacity of around 1000.
Fans will NOT have to wear masks or face coverings while they sit in their seats, but Hearn insists there are exhaustive health and safety measures in place for both fans and the players.
Regardless, a number of the game’s top stars have criticised the decision, with five-time world champion O’Sullivan saying players are being treated like ‘lab rats’.
And the Rocket is not the only one, with Anthony Hamilton – an asthma suffer and more at risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19 – branding the decision to allow fans into the famous venue ‘ridiculous’ and announcing his withdrawal from the competition.
But Hearn has defended the decision for the World Championship to be a test event, telling talkSPORT: “We have to be positive and move forward with sport, or sport will be dead.”
Speaking to talkSPORT host Jim White on the eve of the tournament getting underway, Hearn said: “Of course we are a test event, there’s no doubt about that.
“You’ve got to love Ronnie O’Sullivan’s comments, they only come up every time he wants a bit of publicity, looks for a nice little angle. ‘Lab rats’ is a just a phrase to guarantee a headline, we get used to that with Ronnie, it’s not a problem.
“The fact of life is that sport, somehow, has got to start taking that journey back to normality, or the price we’re going to pay is if we don’t start generating some revenue these smaller events and smaller football clubs, for example, they’re going to go bust.
“The World Snooker Championship is an event that’s watched by 500million people and my job is to make it as attractive as possible, and as financially viable as possible.
“This year it’s not [financially viable], but the price of not doing the event and not beginning the road back to normality will destroy professional sport and with it the income and livelihood of the vast majority of players.
“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture and we have worked tirelessly on this, hand-in-hand with the Government and the Department of Heath every step of the way, to make sure the safety features are second to none.
“There’s a limited crowd, screening on entry, screens behind the players so they don’t interact with the fans, the front row is completely empty, social distancing between everybody sitting in their seats, one to one-and-a-half metre circles around every individual… you cannot believe the amount of detail.”
The world number 48 Hamilton was also critical of the decision to let spectators take off their masks in the auditorium, calling it ‘a mad thing’.
But Hearn said everyone at the tournament will be given one as they enter, to wear in every part of the arena other than their seat, which is within the Government guidelines.
The Matchroom Sports chairman explained: “You don’t have to wear face masks in a pub, do you? You can sit an a large pub with 50 other people…
“You have the option to wear a face mask in the arena if you wish. We will give everybody a face mask as they go in, but we leave it them if they want to wear it while they are watching.
“You have to wear a face mask in the concourse and in and around the seating area, but it can be uncomfortable to wear one for hours on end and you’re socially distanced from every single person when you’re sat down in that arena.”
Hearn also questioned the timing of Hamilton’s decision to withdraw, saying he knew exactly what the plans were when he entered, and accused him of effectively robbing another player of their chance to play at the Crucible.
“The damage people like Ronnie O’Sullivan do… and Antony Hamilton withdrew yesterday having gone through the qualifying competition. He just decided last night that he’s going to withdraw from the World Snooker Championships because he’s got asthma and he’s worried about his own health.
“Now, that’s completely understandable and not a problem, but the question I pose is: why did he not withdraw before the qualifying competition? Because by getting through the qualifiers he has effectively stopped someone else from going and earning a living.
“He’s not qualified to say ‘it’s ridiculous’; we’ve worked with government specialists, with the health bodies.
“He entered the competition knowing there were going to be fans present; why did he not withdraw then, instead of knocking someone else out?
“He knows the situation. He hasn’t had asthma that started yesterday; he’s had asthma and heath issues for some time, so don’t give me all that.
“We have to be positive and move forward with sport, or sport will be dead!”