The Evening Standard

With Barry Hearn

Barry Hearn is the classic bean counter — he wanted to be an accountant from the age of 12 — who long ago worked out how to make money from sport.

The nine he promotes — darts, poker, prize boxing, ten pin bowling, bowls, coarse fishing, golf, pool and snooker — provide 40,000 hours of televised sport globally a year. Seven per cent of all sport broadcast by Sky has been developed by Matchroom, his family-owned company.

Yet, talk to 62-year-old Hearn of the one sport he makes no money from, football, and he is chilling.

“We are talking of the survival of the national game,” he says.

I am interviewing Hearn at a hotel in Wembley. He has just flown back from Singapore, where he has been attending a conference to sell television rights.

Singapore has again impressed him about the brand value of football and he was amazed to find that the people there “know the back four of Birmingham City”.

But Hearn is scathing about the finances of the national game and, as chairman of Leyton Orient, he can claim an inside track on how the game has mismanaged its money.

“Sixty per cent of all football clubs are insolvent and that includes some in the Premier League,” he claims.

“People who run these clubs are cheating. If you can’t pay your bills, that means you are insolvent. It is a criminal offence for directors of companies to trade insolvently. They’re like athletes taking drugs. They’re cheating the

public because they are fielding players they cannot afford to pay.”

Hearn is convinced that deducting points for going into administration is not enough. “This 10-point loss is absolute nonsense,” he says. “Southampton went into administration, then the first week they came out they spent £1million on a centre-forward.”

Hearn wants any club going into administration to be immediately relegated two divisions; a plan he will try to get his fellow Football League chairmen to accept at their annual meeting in June. Not that administration is a worry for Orient.

Hearn bought the club he has supported since he was 11, rescuing it from bankruptcy for £2.43, 15 years ago. He has invested £8m but runs it so tightly the club does not owe money.

Orient lose between £600,000 and £700,000 a year on their football but this is recouped through “property deals and football-related activities”.

The game may have, as Hearn says, “created monsters” through inflated players’ salaries but Orient employ none of these. No Orient player’s annual salary comes even close to the weekly wage of John Terry, only five players are on £100,000-a-year and Hearn makes sure the wage bill of £1.8m is only 60 per cent of the club’s £3m income.

Spending less does mean dreaming little and Hearn confesses the League One side, who have only once been in the top flight, are never going to win the Champions League.

“We are also unlikely to win the FA Cup,” he adds. “We might make the play-offs one year if we were to have a bit of a flukey run. All we offer is a good afternoon’s entertainment at an affordable price.”

Hearn concedes supporters have not been happy with what they see as his lack of ambition. At a fans forum, following angry questions, Hearn asked all those in the room who would love to have a Rolls-Royce to put up their hands. Everyone did.

Then he asked: “How many of you have a Rolls?” No hands went up.

Hearn asked one of the fans who had been very vocal: “Why haven’t you got a Rolls-Royce?” His reply? “I can’t afford one.”

Away from the national game, Hearn has shown he can successfully marry sport to business, make money for himself and give fans what they want at the same time.

So coarse fishing has been on television for 17 years despite the fact, when he first proposed it, Sky said he was mad. In the last decade, Hearn has made poker a television sport and, in the last five years, his Premier League darts has transformed the game’s profile. Last month season’s starter at O2 attracted 10,000 punters and by the time it reaches a climax at Wembley at the end of May some 83,000 will have watched the game live.

The secret, he explains, is simple: “Make the experience more enjoyable at a competitive price”. At a Premier League match it costs £30 to sit on the floor, £20 on the raised seats.

However, snooker is posing Hearn more problems.

Compared to darts, it is like a sleeping beauty. Some fear it is a comatose beauty. Although Hearn sees himself as a Prince Charming, he knows it will require more than a kiss to reverse a “10-year spiral of decline” and overcome the heavy burden of past glory.

That was created on that magical night in 1985 when 18.5 million people stayed up past midnight to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis for the World Championship at The Crucible. For Hearn, the match has been “the albatross round snooker’s neck”.

Hearn did much to promote that glory when, back in 1975 as finance director of a fashion design company, he was asked to diversify the business. The property and garment manufacturing ventures failed miserably but Hearn had also bought a chain of snooker halls.

He had never played snooker and did not know the snooker business. For him it was just “a good property deal in attractive town centres”.

Then, quite by chance, that year the BBC got heavily involved in the sport. He says: “I don’t why but suddenly all these places I had bought for next to nothing were full up. Everyone said I was a genius. I knew I was lucky.”

So lucky that, in 1982 when he sold his 16 snooker clubs to set up Matchroom, Hearn walked away with a profit of £3.5m. But those glory years also carried the seeds of snooker’s fall and Hearn admits he was part of the “vested interests” that helped bring the game to its present dismal state.

“When I managed eight players — Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Dennis Taylor, Terry Griffiths, Tony Meo, Cliff Thorburn, Neal Foulds and Willie Thorne — I also sat on the board of World Snooker. Did I do what was best for snooker? Or did I do it for my players?

“Hands up, I worked for them and not for the game as a whole. Snooker has never had anyone strong enough to say I am running the game.”

Hearn, the poacher, has now turned the gamekeeper of snooker.

Last December, the players voted out the chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, Sir Rodney Walker. Before that the players had approached Hearn to stand against Sir Rodney. Hearn’s response, in effect, prompted Walker’s removal.

“I told them I won’t stand for election. I don’t do democracy.

“For years players have whinged but done nothing. So I said come to me after you have [got rid of Walker]. I never believed the players would ever do anything. Lo and behold they got off their backside and did it.”

Hearn’s big problem is to find the stars the public can identify with. He recently went into the players’ room at a tournament and asked someone: “Whose son are you?” He turned out to be the world No11.

“Snooker in the 80s had Coronation Street characters: Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths, the list goes on. Suddenly they were being replaced by technically very good players but without the personality or the charisma.”

As he waits for heroes to emerge, Hearn is looking at “new formats, new tournaments, quickfire bish-bosh-bang snooker, maybe a single shoot-out frame to decide matches”.

If this has a touch of Twenty20 cricket then Hearn believes that younger markets need a lot more entertainment.

Not all of Hearn’s innovations have worked. Critics were not much taken with music at the Masters at Wembley — Mark King dancing to Ice Cube, Mark Selby entering the arena to Kasabian — but Hearn dismisses the critics as “anorak fans” and believes a new audience can be a found which will make snooker emulate the success of darts.

Crucial to this will be a radical change to the game’s structure. Next week he will ask the players to agree to a break up of the WPBSA into two bodies. This will give Hearn control of the money while players worry about the rules.

“I propose taking World Snooker Ltd, the commercial arm, away from the players,” he says. “They are not qualified to run the commercial arm. I will have majority control, I don’t run any business I don’t control. The players will be my junior partners.”

The commercial arm will pay a licence fee to the governing body and, as he spoke to me, Hearn was negotiating the fee he will pay to acquire World Snooker Ltd. “Once the deal is done, the players and I will go and make some money,” he says.

It is a classic illustration of Hearn the sporting entrepreneur. Unlike many who feel snooker’s time has gone, he sees the recession, like the one in 1975 when he first got involved, as an ideal opportunity to re-launch the game.

“The present recession is not bad for snooker,” he argues.

“Working-class people — where are they going to go? They are out of work, either queuing up to play snooker or gambling on the fruit machine. Ninety per cent of my events are sponsored by gambling companies. They are doing well out of the recession.”

Hearn not only promotes sports that he likes, which is why he has not promoted tennis or motor sport, but is confident he knows his audience.

“I am appealing to mainstream white working-class, absolutely,” he admits. And why not? They are his people. Brought up in Dagenham after the war in a house that had an outside toilet, he shared a bedroom with his sister until he was 18.

Overcoming adversity is not new to him. His accountancy firm told him he could never be a partner because he had not been to university and did not have a posh enough accent.

Now in marketing a sport he asks a simple question: “What would be my ideal night out? I would watch a fight, have a couple of pints and a curry with the lads, or go and enjoy the darts or watch the snooker.”

The “inflated egos” of his fellow chairman may make him fear for the future of football but he has no worries about catering to the non-football sporting instincts of the English working-class.


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