Ronnie O’Sullivan eased through group one.
The Matchroom.Live Championship League has seen snooker’s top professionals lead the way, as the world of sport begins to resume, following the global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The behind closed doors tournament, staged in Milton Keynes, is being broadcast to every country in the world and is one of the first sporting events to return. We’ve been taking a look behind the scenes, with a series of features looking at the extensive measures taken to ensure the safe restart of professional snooker.
Click here to find out about the event from a player’s perspective
Click here to find out how the broadcasters have adapted to coronavirus regulations
This time the focus is on the Matchroom Multi Sport team, who have worked tirelessly to get the appropriate precautions in place, to create a safe zone for all players and staff present in Milton Keynes…
With countries around the globe entering nationwide lockdowns in early to mid March, running professional sporting events essentially became an impossibility. As things have progressed and restrictions have been peeled back, sporting bodies began exploring possible ways to make their return.
The UK government announced that the second phase of lockdown restrictions would allow for professional sporting events to take place in England, providing they take the appropriate precautions. This second phase came in on June 1st and Matchroom Multi Sport ambitiously decided that they would run the Championship League to facilitate snooker’s return on this very day.
Chief Operating Officer Emily Frazer, and her team, adopted the policy of creating a ‘bubble’ around the event, in order to maintain the safety of those within it. Strict testing measures were set up to ensure that anyone going inside the bubble was clear of the virus. With an on-site hotel in place, Stadium MK and the Marshall Arena proved to be the ideal venue.
Frazer said: “So much is unknown and we were the first ones out, in terms of putting on a sporting event. It felt like if we started from a point of being very strict and creating this bubble, where nobody is allowed to enter unless they are tested negative, we could go from there. Understanding all of the implications of that was definitely the most challenging thing so far.
“The fact the hotel is on site was an ideal scenario for us. We have it exclusively to Matchroom and it has allowed us to have full control. As soon as a hotel bedroom is used by a player or member of staff, whether they test negative or positive, it basically gets red tape over it and is out of use for the rest of the tournament. Everything has been kept really straightforward. We have signposting and one-way walking systems everywhere, with lots of hand sanitizer stations and PPE for people that want it. There is an air lock system used for any deliveries. We can’t just let whoever is making the delivery into the bubble, so we use the airlock to avoid that contact.
“Despite having done all of the testing, we are still maintaining the two metre social distancing rule. You just need that extra precaution as you are testing the people, but you never know for certain if it has been brought in on other surfaces like suitcases. It isn’t an unpleasant environment to be in. Everyone just feels super safe and super secure. We have a great team on site and the main objective is to make everyone feel safe.”
In terms of the testing process nothing has been left to chance. In order to ensure that the procedures are watertight, very stringent rules have been put in place to preserve the integrity of any results. Frazer utilised expert opinion and planned down to the finest details.
She explained: “We have a Chief Medical Officer, who our documentation has been passed through to make sure we are going by the right rules and regulations. We are working with a company called Summerfield Healthcare, who administer all of the tests. We’ve nicknamed the nurse who does them as Phillip the Destroyer! He is super thorough, because the last thing you want is to do a test and it come back as invalid. He comes on site every day, administers the tests and they get couriered straight to the lab. Timings have to be strict because if we miss our cut off time we don’t get the results the next day.
“Once the tests have been done, every step is taken to uphold their results. The players have to be quarantined in their rooms overnight. We put masking tape over the doors so we know they haven’t been opened. We have 24-hour security monitoring the corridors and we know who all of the rooms have been assigned to. As soon as we get the all-clear, the team goes round and wristbands all of the players. Once inside the bubble, we have green and red zones clearly marked out. As long as it is green, it is fine for you to pass. If anyone crosses into a red zone, they have left the bubble as there are people in those areas that have not been tested. We have already had three instances of that happening this week. They have all had to be escorted back to the testing and isolated again until they get results back. The testing procedure is very new to us. I am confident we have gone above and beyond to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Paul Collier now works as a Tournament Director, as well as a referee.
Once players get the all-clear the following day they can enter the arena and practice areas. Like any other event, it is the job of the Tournament Director to ensure that play proceeds smoothly and to the desired timings of broadcasters. Paul Collier, a two-time World Championship final referee, is this week’s Tournament Director.
Collier admits that ensuring coronavirus regulations are adhered to, has added complications to his role. Given the group format of the event, the turnaround times between matches have been decreased, but there is also more to do to ensure the tables are properly sanitised.
“Normally it takes around 15 minutes to turn things around in between matches. This week we actually have four minutes and 53 seconds. As soon as the winning ball goes in, I am grabbing the next two players and getting them in position,” explained Collier.
He added: “A lot of trial and error has gone in to finding the quickest way to get everything done. Our table fitter Josh goes straight in after the match. There is an anti-bacterial spray which he puts on the table, before he blocks it down. He also uses a spray to wipe down all of the woodwork on the table. While he is doing that Ryan from Trans-sport, who do all of the staging for our events, goes in and wipes down the seats and tables, as well as the sets of rests. Abigail and Phoebe, two of our event managers from Matchroom, also go in and change the bottles of water, hand sanitizer and tissues we provide for each player. We originally had two complete sets of tables and chairs that we were going to swap in and out between matches, but we found that took longer than just cleaning everything. It works really well and it is impressive to see it all unfold.”
Finally, the players must undergo the usual post-match media obligations attached to snooker events. However, facilitating this has provided its own challenges, as access to the venue for press hasn’t been possible. Matchroom Multi Sport’s Head of Media Nick Teale has had to turn to technological solutions to ensure maximum coverage for the event.
Teale said: “The seeded player in the group is generally the player who generates the most interest with media. So we have been holding virtual press conferences on Zoom after their first game at around about four o’clock. That way the journalists can get stuff for the first editions, rather than have to wait until the end of the day. We then follow up with our own interview at the conclusion of play and send round the audio to the relevant people.
“It’s not all that different from press conferences at events like the World Championship, where you have all sorts of different press with different requirements. I have two laptops here with me, one to hold the interviews on and another that I can use to be admitting people to the press conference while it is ongoing. Generally, first questions go to anybody who isn’t doing it for embargo, like the Press Association and BBC Sport. Then the following day’s papers come in. It is really like a normal press conference, the media are just online rather than in the room.”