|Barry Hearn- Chairman, Matchroom Sport|
|Profile of the week|
After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in 1970 at the age of 21, Barry Hearn spent several years in practice before moving into the business world, initially in fashion and property.
In 1974 he became chairman of Lucania Snooker Clubs and became involved in the world of snooker. Eventually he sold the business for £3.1 million in 1982 to concentrate on building up his Matchroom Sport snooker management stable, headed by Steve Davis.
In the late ’80s, Barry became involved in boxing, establishing Matchroom as one of the leading promoters in Europe and his name in synonymous with the likes of Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn.
Further sports were added to the Matchroom portfolio over the years including pool, tenpin bowling, poker, fishing and darts where Barry has propelled the Professional Darts Corporation into one of the UK’s fastest growing sports businesses.
In 2010, Hearn’s career came full circle as he assumed control of World Snooker and set about revitalising an under-exploited sport. Turning snooker back into a full-time sport, he effectively doubled the prize money in a two year period.
In his spare time, Hearn is Chairman and owner of Leyton Orient FC.
How confident are you that you can recreate with snooker the success that you had with darts?
There is no little book of do’s and don’ts, the basic rule revolves around activity and making sure that everyone associated with the sport gets value for money. These are difficult economic times, so the value for money is absolutely fundamental and you have to understand what you want to get from the relationship.
We’ve taken advantage of two booms; the boom in China and the Far East has been exceptional and seems to be gathering momentum by the day, so we’ve fed that with world-class events. The other is the European audience via Eurosport, which has shown a dramatic upswing in terms of TV ratings, where snooker is now I think the number one watched sport on Eurosport.
The UK continues to be solid and obviously our relationship with the BBC is fundamental to that but we’ve added different fun events. Cyclically, snooker went down into a bit of a rut period after that, it now seems to have bottomed out and is now vertical in terms of exploitation benefits that we’re bringing to the sport. So it hasn’t been easy, but frankly, we’re quite good at what we do, so we know how to take a sport and re-invent it and reignite interest.
Do you think it is easier to change the perception of a so-called “pub-sport” to one which is considered as being elitist?
When you talk about darts, the perception of what we call “pub sports” is a difficult problem to change. There has never been a darts revolution like the last ten years, where it has become the hottest ticket in sport, the biggest indoor sport in the UK and the second highest ratest sport on Sky behind Premier League football.
In other words, although the darts is world-class, it’s also a world-class evening. People these days in difficult times are very choosy on what they are going to spend their money on, so my job is to make the events a ‘must-visit’ and an experience for the punters when they go there, and that’s where we’ve been largely successful. When you’ve got 10,000 people watching four darts players at the 02, people outside of the UK are mind-boggled by this, saying “how can this happen?!”
Is there the possibility of moving one of the Snooker majors to a growing market like China?
At the moment we have five major rankings events in China, and the market there is demanding more and wanting bigger events. We have a great relationship and history with the Crucible in Sheffield and the fact the Crucible has been the home of snooker for so many years. It can be a tempting thing, but basically, you can’t mess around with history. It’s not the same, Wimbledon is Wimbledon and the World Snooker Championships is the Crucible in Sheffield and it’s going to be very unlikely to move that event elsewhere. What I’d rather do is build up other events in other parts of the world which are significant in the growth of the game.
It doesn’t mean to say you have to sell the crown jewels; once you sell the crown jewels once, in many ways you destroy the mystique of the event.
How do you judge the success of Power Snooker?
Power Snooker is not an event that we own at World Snooker, it’s an event that we licence and sanction and it’s an interesting idea. I never want to close my eyes to new formats because we have to evolve and we have to be creative. I think Power Snooker still has some way to go to capture the public’s imagination but they are looking at coming back with some events next year and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. From my side, anything that entertains people, rewards players and encourages excellence is to be welcomed and Power Snooker would certainly come under that description.
Were you always confident you could turn darts into what it is now or has it surprised yourself?
It hasn’t surprised me…it’s astonished me. Everywhere we have gone, we’ve shocked and amazed people that you can turn a pub pastime into a major international sport and when the cynics go to an event, they see a 100% professionally produced show; they enjoy the experience and have come back.
The fact is that we’ll have 100,000 people at Premier League Darts this year, with 50,000 people at the World Darts Championships. And these are all the 18-34 year-old, prime suspects for most sponsors and are matched by year-on-year growth of roughly 15 to 20% on ratings for the last six or seven years, so you have to really scratch your head to find another sport that could find a similar growth pattern. Ticket sales are a must-have asset of our business and we went on sale ten days ago for the Premier League, which starts on February 7th and we sold 46,000 tickets in the first ten days.
The World Darts Championships is the second highest rated sport on Sky after Premier League football. Darts is consistently delivering far higher viewing figures than Rugby Union, Rugby League, football outside of the Premier League, Tennis and Golf. Darts doesn’t just beat these sports, it slaughters these sports, and it’s a sign of what people want to be entertained by and that speaks volumes.
Do you think darts is still viewed as a Northern European sport or are there aspirations to go global?
On the back of our television coverage, darts is now seen all over the world every week. It’s obviously now being seen in China and the Far East, but all this takes time to do. What we’ve managed to do is sell thousands of hours of darts programming globally and on the back of that, now we’re getting more enquiries for live events, so a couple of years ago, we launched the European Tour, which has been hugely successful.
At the first European Darts Championships, we had 25 customers on the first day, while 25 extra people walked up on the night. Darts in Germany now is a 3,000 capacity minimum every night. So that’s happened in three or four years. And what we are seeing is more and more people using darts as a social night out as well as being entertained by the best players in the world because it does create drama.
The next stage for darts seems to be a global expansion and in 2013, we will begin the launch of our World Series of Darts, which will take the top eight players all over the world. From a proper sport, darts is still in its infancy; we haven’t really begun where we’re going to finish.