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A Cup Like No Other
Nov 2, 2020, 2:00 PM

'A Cup Like No Other'


The only thing certain about the 2020 Mosconi Cup is that nothing is certain.By Mike Panozzo

No matter how things shake out, 2020 promises to be a Mosconi Cup like no others.

Madness, partisanship and flag-waving figure to be replaced by bubbles, emoji cheers, elbow bumps and nose swabs, as the annual Europe vs USA slugfest reshapes itself in the wake of COVID-19’s seemingly endless assault on “normal.”

Just four weeks from the proposed start of the four-day team 9-ball event, only the lineups are set in stone, and even that could change at a moment’s notice.

Still to be determined are minor details, like, oh, the venue, live audience participation and which squad will be awarded a coveted second practice table.

The stubbornness of the global pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for pool in general and the Mosconi Cup in particular. Riding an unprecedented wave of popularity and success, the 26-year-old Matchroom Sport-promoted event was on pace to welcome 3,000 fans to each of the four sessions in 2020 and figured to continue its growth in television viewership.

Instead, Matchroom Multi Sport COO Emily Frazer and her crew are holed up in a virtual war room, planning for anything and everything that could alter the course of the event between now and its Dec. 1 start.

With sponsorship dollars trimmed and possibly no ticket revenue, Frazer recently acknowledged that the first order of business is finding a venue that could handle both a bubbled event and some live audience. The 2020 event is scheduled for London’s cavernous old Alexandre Palace, but the likelihood of it actually being staged there seems remote.

“Plan A is to move the venue,” Frazer said recently. “We have to be prepared for both behind-closed-doors and spectators. Massive tiered seating places like Ally Pally won’t work. We have to be really creative with the arena.

“Plan B is to create a bubble but find creative ways to get crowd engagement.

“And Plan C is to run away!”

If Frazer and her crew have proven anything in recent years, however, it’s that challenges are embraced more than feared.

“People have come to expect the best from us,” Frazer said. “So, we won’t deliver anything less than the best, regardless of the challenge.”

What appears to be the most manageable part of the equation to date is player logistics. Matchroom has been able to have players and coaches from both teams issued exemptions from the mandatory 14-day quarantine to enter the United Kingdom under an elite sportsmen rule unveiled by the British government earlier this year. According to rules, the players will have to be tested prior to leaving their country of origin and again after arriving in the U.K. Once cleared, all athletes will be limited in their exposure to non-athletes, living and performing in veritable bubbles.

According to Team USA Captain Jeremy Jones, his squad is scheduled to fly to London on Nov. 22, 10 days prior to the Cup.

“Once we get there, we’ll be okay,” he said. “Our travel will be limited.”

Of course, the possibility exists that a player and/or captain could test positive prior to the event.

“We have contingency plans in place, which the captains are comfortable with,” said Frazer.

According to Matchroom, once the event begins, players will not be required to wear masks during play, even during team and doubles matches.

In addition to protecting the players, Frazer said Matchroom staff will be quarantined and operate in a bubble as well. In addition to creating logistical hurdles, the precautionary measures also add costs to the already pricey event.

“We have to test early because we have to be able to replace people that test positive,” Frazer pointed out. “And then we have to quarantine everyone. During the snooker event in June, we had to cut the staff in half. You need to know who the key people are.”

Frazer said that Matchroom’s handling of professional snooker in June, where a small live crowd was allowed on the final day, was an invaluable exercise.

“Being able to successfully conduct professional snooker events really helps us,” she said. We’ve learned a lot and it’s given us confidence that we can handle every situation. It also showed the government that we can conduct events safely and responsibly.

“And the silver lining is that we’ve had to think of new ways to deliver the event,” she added. “We’re thinking beyond simply live audiences. We’ve worked on improving viewer engagement. We’ve had to be creative. We’ve got another opportunity with a tenpin bowling event we’re doing, and we will experiment with some new things, see what works and what doesn’t, and step it up in December.”

With coronavirus cases spiking slightly in the U.K., a live audience appears a remote possibility. According to Frazer, Matchroom presold approximately 1,500 tickets per session, and contacting those ticketholders will be her first priority.

“We’ve got to get messages to ticketholders, updating them as to what’s going on,” she said. “We need to give them options. Some have contacted us with information about their tickets and travel arrangements. We may need to refund their event tickets and make sure they are able to get refunds for their travel and hotels.”

Still, Frazer has not completely ruled out the possibility of some live audience, and her search for a new venue will take seating into account.

“Fortunately, no one is using venues right now,” she added. “So, we’ve got the pick of potential sites.”

In 2018 and ’19, Frazer went all in on the live experience at the Cup, creating a party atmosphere with sing-along pop songs, daily “fancy dress” contests and other fan-engagement promotions.

In 2020, she will need to devise a strategy that will have that atmosphere transferred to television viewership. Because of Matchroom’s exclusive programming agreement with sports streaming service DAZN, viewers in the U.S. will have to sign on to the subscription platform. In the U.K., as has been the case for all 26 years, the event will be broadcast live on Sky Sports.

“We’ll have to be more creative with the arena,” Frazer commented. “We may make use of more digital screens and find ways to get the viewers to interact.

“Digital and social media are so important right now.”

In fact, Frazer opined that the weeks leading up to the Dec. 1 kickoff will be as important as the event itself.

“We’ve got to be sure to get the word out,” she said. “It will be barrage marketing. We want to make sure that every fan knows the dates, times, what they can do to participate, etc. We need to be smart in how we engage the spectator.”

As has been the case in the past two years, the week leading up to the start of the event will help set the table.

“We still have ‘Fight Week’,” she pointed out. “A lot of it, including press conferences, etc., will be virtual, but there will be a lot going on.”

Frazer, of course, isn’t the only person having to negotiate tricky logistics and mindsets ahead of the event. The team captains and their players are also treading into uncharted waters.

“It’s been a challenge to prepare for this year’s event,” understated Jones. “For a lot of us that usually travel all year long, it’s been strange. I traveled recently for the first time since March and I had some anxiety because it seemed so foreign.”

Jones and vice-captain Joey Gray have had one-on-one training with each of their players (Shane Van Boening, Skyler Woodward, Billy Thorpe, Justin Bergman and Chris Robinson), but the lack of real competition through the year figures to make player performance hard to handicap.

“I was at a small event recently,” Jones added. “And you can see it in the guys that have managed to keep playing a lot. Some players have been in action matches and you can see they’re sharper.”

Jones said that several of the players were set to convene in Oklahoma City, where Van Boening is set to play a three-day money match against Filipino Dennis Orcollo. Jones has also arranged for a Team USA match against players from the area. The entire team is scheduled to meet in Dallas for training before heading to Austin, Texas, for a 9-ball tournament.

“We’ll get to hang out together and work out,” Jones said. “And then we’ll go to Austin. Some good, stiff competition will be good.”

According to Jones, his charges are both excited and anxious.

“They’re ready to play,” he insisted. “There really hasn’t been anything else for them to focus on because there have been no other events. But you don’t know how that first ball will feel.”

With his players (Jayson Shaw, Joshua Filler, Fedor Gorst, Klenti Kaci and Albin Ouschan) hamstrung by travel restrictions in Europe, Team Europe Captain Alex Lely and vice-captain Karl Boyes have conducted most of their training and meetings over the video communications platform Zoom.

“We’ve had pretty intense practice sessions for the past six weeks,” Lely said. “Sometimes two players at a time and things like that. Over the three weeks before we meet in London, I’m planning on working more one on one with the players. As for the final week, that program is not set in stone yet. A lot is still up in the air.”

In the meantime, Lely said he’s been learning more about his players, including hosting a “Quiz Night” on Zoom. The quiz included pool trivia and personal information about the players.

“What I learned is that Josh [Filler] really knows a lot about pool history,” Lely shared. “He must have been reading pool magazines since he was a kid. He won the contest.”

As “losers,” Lely said that Kaci and Gorst will be required to wear bow ties and serve the rest of the team at a dinner prior to the event.

Not to be outdone, Frazer said she’s presented both teams with a social media challenge, with the squad generating the most social media buzz ahead of the event being gifted a second practice table during the week of the Cup.


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