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The Big Interview: Barry Hearn

Sport | Published:

Barry Hearn made millions from thinking outside of the box and the Grand Slam of Darts at Wolverhampton Civic Hall has proved no exception.

The cross-code competition, pitting his PDC throwers against the best of bitter rivals the BDO, starts for the eighth time at the Civic, as always live on Sky Sports.

The happy marriage between him and the television bods made him after it nearly broke him, with bankruptcy a real possibility as he tried to join the big leagues, writes Craig Birch.

He's revolutionised so many fields and the next game will take him into double figures. Golf, ten pin bowling, pool, ping pong and poker play their part in the background.

Sports promotion and production might not have been his field, either, as he first bought a snooker hall when looking for a property investment in the early 1970s.

Hiis personal fortune stands at £30million and growing. He's made himself and others rich and possesses the sort of financial clout that makes no sporting spectacle impossible.

Snooker, British boxing and even fishing were the precursors to darts in receiving his midas touch and he was a football club chairman for 20 years.

And Hearn puts its all down to being a great entertainer with a working-class ethic who, as a man of the people, knows what he wants is what they want.

There's still plenty more disciplines his Matchroom Sport juggernaut could turn to gold and the drive for new success stories won't allow him to rest on his laurels for one moment.

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He said: "I am 66 but I have got as much energy as I ever had. I am stuck in my ways, true, so I have got to listen and learn from young people.

"I want to keep working and being creative, I have no intention of retiring or taking a day off. I love what I do, so it's not work to me.

"I am always looking at loads of things such as cricket, netball and even cycling. Nine of 10 don't happen, because I am led by broadcasters.

"If I haven't got television interest, I can't do anything. I am in the commercial end of sport, I run a proper company and have for the past 40 years.

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"It's a different type of attitude. The atmosphere of the darts is party time, having a beer with your mates and watching world-class sport. They go together so well.

"We are the biggest independent supplier for Sky Sports, there's no one to stand with us in terms of hours of Matchroom product across nine different sports.

"We are a private company, so we have fun watching sport and doing what we do. If you don't have a passion for it, no one would survive in this job. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I was always an avid sports fan, but I was never particularly good at playing anything. As a logistical organiser of entertaining sports, I think I am up there with the best.

"That's what my track record tells you, broadcasters know they can rely on Matchroom products to be good to watch, delivered on time and at the right price.

"Those are the categories that a promoter worries about and, if you can tick all of those boxes, you will be fine."

A regular fixture - Barry Hearn has worked with Sky Sports since the company formed in the early 1990s.

When Sky came along, Hearn wanted a piece of the pie more than most, to the point where he was ready to gamble everything on it.

He said: "The big break was when Sky came along in the early 1990s, I started working with them not long after they had started.

"I have been with them ever since and I do about seven per cent of their total output now. For all the money, they are passionate about sport so it's a great synergy between our two companies.

"I saw the satellite and cable boom coming and I invested more money than I had in it. I nearly got it wrong, I was nearly a little bit too early.

"Those times made me as a businessman and as a person, was I just a good time Charlie or could I roll my sleeves up and solve problems?

"We found out what we were like as a family and as a business, but I knew when it took off they would need product and there wasn't anything like it.

"I set out to create events for those channels and that cost me huge money and, fortunately, I got it right eventually.

"For the first couple of years, it was really touch and go. At one stage, I was within two or three weeks of thinking that was it.

"We turned ourselves around to become one of the top private companies in the country and are proud of what we have achieved.

"Every successful businessman will give you the same sort of story."

In the end, Hearn went with his gut which, from his roots, wasn't a decision he took lightly. There had been no silver spoon.

He had been employed since he was barely out of short trousers. The one thing he soon had was fingers in a few pies.

He stayed smart, getting qualified as a chartered accountant, where one of his clients was wealthy businessman Deryck Healy.

In 1973, he persuaded them to double his wages and make him finance director. They both gleaned considerable funds from the union.

His first sporting foray came by chance, Hearn's first purchase on his own a chain of snooker halls in 1974, investing his own money.

But lady luck really smiled on him when a manager at one of his club's told him about a young Steve Davis, who had walked in off the street.

He became Davis' manager, friend and part of the 'hustle.' Paid £25 a match, Davis toured the country, taking part in challenge matches against established professionals.

Hearn gave him the nickname 'Nugget' because, according to him, "you could put your case of money on him and you knew you were going to get paid."

Davis won his first World Championship in 1981, going on to spend seven consecutive seasons as World No 1.

Hearn wasn't content with protecting the interests of snooker's top star, he had bigger aspirations. He believed he could drive the sport to unprecedented heights.

Healy sold up in 1982 for £3.5million and, by then, Hearn owned a third of the company. He went and formed Matchroom, never looking back.

He was at the forefront of the snooker boom that decade, where 18.5million BBC viewers watched Davis' 1985 World Championship final against Dennis Taylor.

Believing he was the man responsible, Hearn took up office as chairman of World Snooker, a position he held until taking over their commercial arm in 2010.

The sport that made him, Hearn will have always have their best interests at heart, but that was merely just the start of the journey.

Breakthrough - Steve Davis and Barry Hearn changed each other's lives from the first day they met.

He said: "I started when I was 13, my first job was working in greenhouses stripping down tomato plants, it was hard work but I loved it.

"I started car washing, window cleaning and babysitting rounds, I worked on the doors for local clubs, I did anything to make a few quid.

"We were skint as a family after my Dad, Maurice, died early at 44 after having heart problems for years. I was only 18.

"That's life, you learn from it and he taught me a valuable lesson, don't waste a single second of any day. I have lived my life on that maxim.

"I became a chartered accountant and ran businesses for other people. That actually became my road into sport.

"Like everything else, it's better to be born lucky than good looking. One day, a kid called Steve Davis walked in and changed my life.

"We had some fun, we loved the game and decided we were going to take it around the world. You would be able to watch snooker wherever you were.

"You can't get anywhere unless you really love a sport, I just don't deal with the ones I don't like. I have got a limited amount of time and I am going to give it to the things I enjoy.

"I used to box a bit, I played pool on the West Coast for money, used to have a chuck here and there and still play cricket.

"I basically did all of the sports I wasn't great at, but I was good at organising them. Snooker was where it all started.

"Steve Davis was, head and shoulders, No 1 but I would have to give a plug to Chris Eubank, we had 19 world title fights together and built big business on the back of it.

"Phil Taylor has been the best flag-bearer you could ever wish for in darts and, with all three, I was just as good for them as it as they were for me.

"When I bought the snooker out from the players, I bought all of the worldwide commercial rights forever. The prize money was £3.5million, that will be £7.5million next year.

"We turned that back into what should be, a British sport that's been exported all over the globe. It's doing good business everywhere.

"The BBC have stuck with us, we are also putting the Champion of Champions on ITV and it's a big event. The biggest thing was to make sure there's enough activity.

Crucible - the snooker boom of the 1980s proved Hearn's path into big sporting business.

"In sports like snooker, it was dying, because there was only five or six events a year, so the players were effectively becoming part time.

"The first thing to do was to raise that number and get them working, because we all need to work. We didn't look back from there."

Looking for other avenues, Hearn first tried boxing promotion in 1987. Like snooker, it was a passion.

He wasn't interested in starting at the bottom, either, his first promotion a mammoth bill headlined by Frank Bruno versus Joe Bugner at Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane in 1987.

He was that convinced he would deliver he offered the television rights to London Weekend for £200,000. Head honcho Grey Dyke didn't believe him to the point he gave him another £50,000.

It was not without its problems, Bruno was supposed to fight Trevor Berbick until he pulled out injured with days, rather than weeks, to go. Enter Bugner, who had never heard of Hearn.

Then there was the 'sucker punch.' Hearn had vowed the fight would not be screened live, to boost ticket sales. It eventually went out an hour later.

He got the job done, as always, and went onto promote Eubank, Nigel Benn, Lennox Lewis and Prince Naseem Hamed. He's put on 600 shows in 25 years.

But he was still just one of a few, until one brainwave gave him something in 2008 that no one had ever done before. The Prizefighter series will always be is - and that came when out fishing.

The eight-man, one night, winner-take-all tournament caught on and made Sky Sports take real notice he was the only man for them. He's now done 33 in total.

He said: "It was colossal to begin with, I didn't know what I was doing! Being a boxing promoter is the most difficult of them all, to me, because of the dangers of the sport.

"I still don't believe the public had been conned with Bruno. Real fight fans would have wanted to be there as it happened.

"And it proved to be the successful start of a long relationship with boxing that made me a lot of money, perhaps as much as snooker. There were other promoters, but we always held our own.

"I love my fishing, it gives me a bit of solitude and thinking time and most of my good ideas have come doing it.

"Both Prizefighter and later a Premier League for darts popped into my head when I was sat there with a rod! I sat there for hours making notes.

"Prizefighter was just something that came along as a novel idea. They bring in a crowd who are not boxing people, so it was a way or broadening the sport's appeal to the general public.

"It's like people who go to watch Twenty20 cricket, they enjoy the game in a shorter format and then maybe go and watch a Test match.

"We had something that no one else had and we were still putting on top quality shows away from that. It gave us the edge."

Sky's relationship with Frank Warren ended when he formed his own television channel, BoxNation, in 2011.

Frank Maloney disappeared from the reckoning altogether, with Mick Hennessey shunted aside, which left Matchroom Boxing as the only show in town.

What they didn't know is that a new Hearn was going to take up that mantle, son Eddie, who has proved just as ambitious as his father.

He booked this year's rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves for Wembley Stadium on Sky Box Office, which even Dad knew was a big risk.

He said: "I have been very lucky that my son has turned into the best boxing promoter I have ever seen. He's going to be outstanding.

"I would hate to say that to his face, as I would lose brownie points at home! But what he's done, even in the past three years, has been nothing short of unbelievable.

"He's taken Carl Froch, who was always a great fighter but not that publicly known, on a journey to Wembley in front of 80,000 people. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it.

"Carl earned millions of pounds, after never getting the sort of money that you associate with great fighters. Now other kids are going to get the benefit of what Eddie is doing.

"He's got the strongest stable I have seen, which is regularly producing British world champions. There's Scott Quigg in Manchester, Kell Brook in Sheffield and Jamie McDonnell in Doncaster.

"I don't think it will be long before Anthony Joshua, Luke Campbell and Callum Smith go the same way. I think Joshua is going to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.

"There's exciting times ahead for fight fans, I am only involved in an advisory capacity now and I am just looking forward to watching it."

Critics will tell you nepotism earned young Eddie a ready-made empire. Barry will agree with you, but insists all he gave him was enough rope to hang himself with.

Chip off the old block - Barry with son and now boxing promoter Eddie Hearn.

He said: "The problem the other boxing promoters start with is that Eddie is very good, much better than them. He's better than me.

"Then having the clout of an exclusive deal with Sky with not just the money, but the exposure it brings, means that the fighters want to be on your channel to get famous.

"It's a terrible, brutal thing to say, but they are yesterday's people. Fans want value for money and are selective in what they go to.

"They will go, in huge numbers, if you have got the right product, as we showed at Wembley.

"If Eddie stays in love with the game, which he is at the moment, then he is the future of the business.

"I judge my son the same way as I judge myself. When he was only 13, the same age as when I started, he was involved.

"I told him 'this is what you are going to end up doing, so learn about it.' He's been at shows since he was a teenager and he was a smart kid.

"Did he get a leg up? Without a doubt. Is that what mums and dads are for? Without a doubt. I gave him a silver spoon, no question, but he turned it gold."

Maloney resurfaced in the public eye this year in a form no one expected. Now called Kellie, she's due for gender reassignment. Hearn, like everyone, was stunned by the news.

He said: "I have known Frank for 25 years and, if I am being totally honest, I don't think he was ever that good a promoter anyway.

"Without going into his personal details, if he's been suffering with this problem since he was 18, then he's the best actor I have ever seen.

"I have sympathetic to anyone who has got that sort of turmoil in their life, but he must have made a hell of a job of hiding it.

"I was astonished, I was on top of a mountain in British Columbia when I heard and I nearly fell off, I was that shocked."

This week, his focus shifts back to the oche, where he made just as serious waves in a sport which had already tore itself apart.

A player exodus from the BDO in 1992 lead to the formation of the WDC, later the PDC, which never really took off until Hearn got involved.

He's took darts to unprecedented heights, with as much if not more opposition than in any other sport he's been involved in.

Hearn has revolutionised darts and many of its players, including world champion Michael van Gerwen.

He said: "Sometimes it's easier to get a sport where nothing much has happened, then taking one that is established to the next level.

"It's a different sort of financial model and you come across a better-organised governing body which, if I was them, would tell me where to go.

"I had that with snooker and that's natural, you can understand where they are coming from.

"It's exciting to be involved with darts, to see it come from 800 people at the Circus Tavern with more chewing gum on the floor than carpet.

"We started this year with 11,000 people watching the Premier League in Leeds, so the attendances have improved 10-fold.

"I bought a controlling stake 12 years ago, but they came to me when they were struggling about four years after they started.

"They asked me to look the television side, negotiating contracts and trying to get some overseas stuff. We started in a tiny, tiny way.

"Our first overseas deal was for $40,000 for the whole world, it would cost you a few million now. It was the same on the domestic side.

"Because of the success of the ratings, the financial side has gone up and the players are getting the type of reward that their excellence deserves.

"It's been a nice, sensible journey. Making profit is great, but you have got to do it in conjunction with increasing prize funds. That's what keeps the players happy.

"The second thing is to make sure you have enough for a rainy day fund, that's the working class side of me. You can run a profitable company, but don't be greedy.

"The prize fund has gone from £500,000 and it won't be far short of £8million next year."

With Hearn leading the PDC's charge, the BDO has floundered, although it just about retains BBC coverage of its own World Championship.

With the real money to be made on the other side of the fence, the Lakeside stars have defected in their droves.

Looking to take complete control, Hearn offered to buy the BDO in 2009 prompting Olly Croft, who founded the organisation in 1973, to decree his "inflated ego."

He may yet secure his monopoly, anyway, after introducing a Youth and Challenge Tour to breed his stars of tomorrow. That's all he wanted the BDO for, anyway.

He said: "On a bad day a few years ago, I offered them a couple of million quid for the BDO. I am glad they didn't take it, it's not worth two bob now!

"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but they are a useful feeder organisation for the PDC, even without me owning the company.

"Everything has its level and it all contributes to the sport, the BDO is a way of coming into darts now. That, in the long run, has got to be good for me.

"The BDO came out with this amnesty thing a couple of weeks ago where, if you went to Qualifying School, you could go back to them after a month.

"But now we have set up the Challenge Tour, where we pay more prize money over 16 events than they put up.

"It's difficult to see why anyone anybody with any aspirations wouldn't want to be a part of that, even a decent county standard player.

"I can understand some of it, I play the odd game of cricket and I am never going to make the team for a Test match, but I enjoy my game.

"I am never going to make a living out of it, the same as these guys are never going to make a living out of playing darts in the BDO. That doesn't mean it can't be a good thing."

Reigning BDO world champion Stephen Bunting will play in the Grand Slam, having crossed over this year to the PDC, another kick in the teeth for Croft and Co.

And Hearn is adamant he only wants the best under his wing and will get that with the stakes high, as players look to join Phil Taylor in the multi-millionaires world.

He said: "Stephen Bunting came over to us as their world champion and has had a tremendous first season. He's 28th in the Order of Merit and is knocking on the door of everything.

"Maybe next year we will get another Bunting from there, but a lot of the future stars will come from the PDC Youth Tour.

"I am seeing kids on that who are just going to take the game by the scruff of the neck and, on the Pro Tour, sometimes we can get two nine-darters in a day.

"That's what happens when the standard gets to that of a proper professional sport. These top guys can earn a million plus a year playing darts.

"Even 10 years ago, they would have told you don't be ridiculous if you said that was going to happen. It would have been like you came down from mars!

"It's not Premier League football wages, but it's life-changing money considering where these people come from. I have always said it's like a working men's golf.

"There's levels and it all serves a purpose in giving people opportunities. On the flip side, if you fail at the top end, there will be players going back to the BDO. That's fair enough.

"We had the Masters last weekend and if you didn't average well over 100, you had no chance of winning. That's the standard now.

"It's important the big prizes are driven by excellence, not mediocrity. The punters expect to see lots of 180s and big checkouts."

As much as his affection for making money, Hearn gave up one love of his life this year, selling up as the owner of Leyton Orient Football Club to Francesco Becchetti.

Next summer would have marked 20 years as chairman of his boyhood club but, as a businessman, it was the one area where there was loss rather than profit.

He would have taken them into the Championship this season, had the Os not fluffed a 2-0 lead to lose to Rotherham United in the League One play-off final.

Game on - Hearn would have marked 20 years as chairman of Leyton Orient Football Club next summer.

He said: "I lived in that area and my parents said that was the only place I was allowed to go, as it wasn't dangerous.

"It stuck and I became chairman with loads of aggravation, frustration and disappointment, but a few days that will live with me forever.

"The highs and lows make the game what it is and I finished with defeat in the League One play-off final, after going 2-0 up.

"But days like getting promotion at Oxford United and drawing 1-1 at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup made it all worth it.

"At one point, we were looking over our shoulder worrying about if we were going to go down to the Conference, with the fans up in arms.

"I think owners of lower-league clubs are the biggest fans they have got. They give their heart and soul and money.

"Leyton Orient are my club and still are, but I am pleased to be out now. Football is such a messy business and is, basically, flawed now.

"I sold out to a wealthy Italian and I wouldn't have invested the sort of money he's going to. In the long run, it will give the club a better chance.

"I keep saying to the fans I still see to give it time. Everyone wants a quick fix in life and it doesn't work like that.

"It took me years to understand football and I don't think these Italians will be any different, but I think they have the financial resources to get the job done.

"At every level, dreams and aspirations have made the game a bottomless pit. In many ways, it has got to be careful.

"It's lost his way to the working man, I think, and the Premier League is so detached, which has become a real worry to me.

"The standard is amazingly high, but I don't think we feel the same affinity towards it. With all of the foreigners, maybe it's the case we just like to cheer on our own."

So that's Barry Hearn. Unbreakable, as even a heart attack 12 years ago confirms. Who knows when you will hear the last of him.

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