The Man Who Revolutionized Spectator Sports
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone loves a bit of Ping-Pong.
By Lutz Wöckener
Just beyond London’s city limits, a group of teenagers is plastering leaflets around a low-income Dagenham neighborhood. It’s the 1960s, and they’re advertising services like car washing and window cleaning to make a few quid. Barry Hearn laughs when he recalls those days, saying of his early ambitions, “I’ve always wanted the house on the hill.”
The tanned 66-year-old may have gray hair now, but he retains his youthful enthusiasm for making money, even if he already owns offices and real estate — hills included — around the world. Young Barry grew up to become an influential promoter known as Snooker’s Mr. Big and has held the title of chairman of World Snooker for the past five years. Along the way, Hearn has turned niche activities like fishing, darts and snooker into popular spectator sports and become the world’s biggest supplier of televised sport, with his company, Matchroom Sport, producing more than 40,000 hours per year.
The idea of seeing Tiger Woods at the windmills … is just fantastic.
Thanks to Hearn, snooker, the most complex form of pool, has enjoyed a major comeback in Great Britain, where interest fell off following its boom years in the 1980s and ’90s. After its heyday, snooker was just badly promoted, says Hearn, who saw an opportunity to take over and did just that, knowing that the sport had a big contract with the BBC at the time. “There’s a big wide world out there,” he says, adding that you can’t grow a professional sport with six tournaments a year.
Since 2009, Hearn has bumped that number to 36 tournaments, and what had been a purely British tradition has become an international pastime. Shanghai has more snooker halls than anywhere in the world, but the German Masters in Berlin is the sport’s biggest showcase, attracting 2,000 fans a day. According to Hearn, though, the event is also the strangest around: There are no world-class German snooker players, and yet more than a million Germans were glued to their televisions in 2014 to watch Mark Selby’s world championship victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan. In keeping with snooker’s expanding TV presence, global audience figures are growing too. “Never before have we earned so much money or had so many viewers,” says Hearn.
His love of the sport began in 1974, in Romford, Essex, when a company hired him to buy snooker halls. When his employer went bust, Hearn took over a hall himself, holding tournaments with players like Steve Davis, Tony Meo and Jimmy White. “We all became friends … spread the word about snooker, had fun and made lots of money,” he says. By the time the BBC discovered the sport in the ’80s and helped make it mainstream, Hearn had all the top players under contract. Fifteen million British TV viewers watched Dennis Taylor win the world championship title in 1985.
Hearn turned his focus to boxing in 1987, creating more than 30 world champions, started broadcasting fishing and pool on TV in 1990, followed by poker in 2000, and then took aim at darts, golf and bowling. He proved again and again that he could turn niche sports into commercial gold.
But his seemingly charmed path hasn’t been free of controversy. When Hearn took over 51 percent of World Snooker from players, a battle ensued with those who got pushed to the sidelines, including former board member Lee Doyle. Once in control, Hearn instituted reforms, like shortening early rounds of championships, which drew biting criticism from players who felt the changes were designed simply to fatten Hearn’s profit.
The so-called king of pub sports continues to search for activities with untapped marketing potential. His latest project is the Ping-Pong world championship, launched at London’s Alexandra Palace in 2012. The main selling point? Anyone can play, and “our wooden bats cost only 7 euros,” he says. And therein lie Hearn’s twin weapons: accessibility and affordability. Noting that you can’t expect people to spend the same on sports in the Philippines or Brazil as they do in Europe, he explains that you have to offer a game “they can afford and that’s easy to understand.”
Next on the horizon? Hearn plans to spin new life into cycling’s neglected six-day races and to take a whack at cricket. He also hopes to market triathlons and netball, a women’s game akin to basketball, to feed demand for women’s sports. His biggest dream, though, is miniature golf, and he can’t wait to see the world’s best golfers swinging at windmills and moving heads. “The idea of seeing Tiger Woods at the windmills … is just fantastic,” he says, adding that he’s currently looking for partners with deep pockets.
But he hasn’t forgotten about snooker. With prize money reaching a whopping $2.15 million this year, there’s talk it may be included in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. It would be a humongous win for the sport … and a house on Mount Olympus for Hearn.
- Lutz Wöckener, OZY AuthorContact Lutz Wöckener