How snooker made a successful return

How snooker made a successful return
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Judd Trump
World champion Judd Trump won his group but failed to reach the final four

Snooker’s return has been likened to the TV reality show Big Brother, and when Luca Brecel lifted the Championship League trophy on Thursday it marked the end of a successful fortnight for the sport.

Belgium’s Brecel emerged victorious from a field of 64 players at an empty Marshall Arena, which had in place strict restrictions because of the ongoing the coronavirus pandemic.

A non-ranking event with matches played in a best-of-four format, the Championship League’s profile was boosted by the presence of star names including world champion and world number one Judd Trump, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby.

And viewing figures, on free-to-air channel ITV4, were impressive – the opening day peaking at 400,000 while 250,000 watched 1997 world champion Ken Doherty’s final group match at midnight.

Mandatory Covid-19 testing was in place for players and other personnel – who had to wait in isolation for up to 24 hours before results were known. All 116 tests proved negative.

“The Matchroom staff have done a wonderful job and the tournament has been run really well,” Doherty told BBC Sport.

“It has all gone smoothly and the organisers have thought about everything.”

‘It has been like Big Brother of snooker’

ITV commentators
The commentary for ITV4’s coverage was done from the Marshall Arena but those behind the microphone were separated by a clear screen

Irishman Doherty arrived prior to the start of the 11-day event and was there throughout, playing in a group featuring Robertson, and also commentating for ITV4.

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He did not leave the complex – which includes the tournament venue, a hotel and football stadium – though there was access to a small garden area outdoors.

Among the adaptations made because of the pandemic were stations for hand sanitiser, masks and gloves “everywhere you turn” and clean towels, sheets, plates and soaps readily available to collect at the hotel.

Masters champion Stuart Bingham said the event had been a “total success”, and explained how clear signage helped to maintain social distancing guidelines.

“There are arrows to follow to keep a one-way system backstage,” he said.

“You get a bit scared sometimes that if you are on your phone and take a wrong turn on autopilot you could go the wrong way.

“To put on an event with what has been going on in the world is unbelievable.”

Doherty, meanwhile, used some of his spare time to watch The Last Dance documentary and “would not have survived” without Netflix.

“It has been like Big Brother of snooker,” he said.

“Not getting out for some fresh air and having a walk has been difficult. It would been nice to get on the football pitch for a run around and kick-about!

“You get your breakfast and lunch to your room by 1pm so once you have that you don’t get anything until a sandwich, cup of tea and fruit at around 5pm.

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“I am looking forward to getting home, I think everybody is, because you are confined in a box.”

Looking ahead – will fans be allowed at the World Championship?

The World Snooker Tour was so pleased with how the tournament was running it announced midway through that the Tour Championship would take place at the same venue from 20 June.

The event, originally due to be played in Llandudno, will follow the same protocols as the Championship League.

The eight-man line-up features Trump, Selby, Robertson and John Higgins – but Ding Junhui has withdrawn from the event as a “safety precaution” and to “avoid extensive travel” from China.

Further ahead, the World Championship has been rescheduled for 31 July at its usual venue – the Crucible in Sheffield – but it remains to be seen whether doors will be opened to fans.

Doherty said: “There is no crowd or anyone around so you miss socialising and winding down on an evening.

“Hopefully they can let some people in in Sheffield to create some atmosphere, by clapping and cheering.

“That is what sport is all about.”

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