FROM SNOOKER TO PING PONG
A STORY OF WORKING TO YOUR PASSIONS by Donnie Rust
I admire any man who makes a living out of his passions because it makes me more confident that I can do the same. For our March issue I wanted to bring you the tale of someone simply outstanding, who is recognized as a British icon in the broadcasting and event promotion industry - a solid monarch of one of the most successful businesses to date, owner and founder of Matchroom, Barry Hearn. Switch on Sky Sports and you won’t have to wait for very long before seeing something Barry Hearn has put there and his story is definitely one to pay attention to. Born in a council estate in June 1948 he exhibited an early knack for building businesses at a young age, and at 26 bought a chain of snooker halls in Greater London in a bid to establish a foothold in property investment. That same year, through design or providence the BBC began promoting
snooker on BBC1 on television which sparked an immediate interest in snooker and pool, resulting in long queues around the block for people wanting to play. He consequently purchased Lucania Billiard Halls and this formed the foundation of his future in promoting snooker via television. This led to the creation of Matchroom. “Matchroom began in 1982,” Barry explains, “It has always had three shareholders, myself and my two children.” Through Matchroom, Barry has become involved in
promoting many other sports including pool, boxing, darts, poker, tenpin bowling, golf and fishing. He also chairs Leyton Orient Football Club, the Professional Darts Corporation and World Snooker. “We provide over 2500 hours a year of sport and syndicate to nearly one hundred territories worldwide giving us approximately 40,000 hours of air time globally a year,” he reveals, “And we’ve partnered with Sky Sports for over twenty-two years.” Sky Sports is the brand name for a group of sportsoriented television channels operated by the UK and Ireland’s main satellite Pay-TV company, British Sky Broadcasting, the
dominant subscription television sports brand in the UK and Ireland. Very much an institution, it provides the highest quality and most up-to-date sports coverage and has shaped a global viewing ethos around itself. That Matchroom have worked with Sky Sports for over two decades is a testament of their worth. “It’s important to take things to the next level,” Barry reveals, “Sport especially always needs to be taken up a notch.” Creativity, focus, passion and experience stand out in shining colours when speaking to Barry. This is a man who has been at the centre of a storm of his own creation for Endeavour Magazine • March 2013 • 13
decades with no end in sight. Bearing in mind that this is an industry that runs exclusively on fresh ideas, where creativity has to be combined with hard work in large measures to keep up with peers and ahead of competition, it sounds exhausting! “To find that right idea,” Barry explains simply, “we look at what we enjoy watching or doing. We research it fully to get the right business platform and then go hell-for-leather from there onwards.” And that’s where Barry, his team and Matchroom stand out. They have revolutionized the way we watch certain sports having pin-pointed the interests of the working class man and capitalizing on the simple fact that people who enjoy doing something in their leisure time will be interested in watching professionals do it too. “I love fishing and after watching the first recording of Wrestle Mania, I pitched the idea of Fish-o-Mania to LWT
but was turned down,” he recalls, “But then sold the idea to Sky Sports which has been a successful television franchise for nineteen years.” “I’ve also been promoting darts for twelve years,” he continues, “It used to be just a pub sport and at first people didn’t take us seriously. Now you can’t get a ticket unless you buy it on the first night they’re available.” This approach has revealed some unexpected winners. Ping pong for example has proven to be a ludicrously well followed sport and Barry had to point out the details before I would completely believe him. “The Ping Pong Championship in January this year was televised to over 600 million homes,” he reveals candidly, “And we are setting up a global network of tournaments over 2013. It’s incredibly popular with three hundred million people playing it. Second only to football.” And also, boxing.
It’s no surprise that I am a fan of boxing. Not only as a fighter myself but as a spectator for there is something very special that happens when two contenders compete in a match that’s properly promoted with just the right amount of hype and captured perfectly in sublime images and footage. Barry looked into promoting boxing in 1987 and his first promotion was the Frank Bruno versus Joe Bugner bout at White Hart Lane in October 1987. An interesting fact is that he offered the television rights to Greg Dyke of London Weekend Television for £200,000, who agreed to pay £250,000 because he didn’t believe Hearn could deliver for the quoted price! Since then Barry has promoted many leading British and Irish boxers, including Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed, Steve Collins and Herbie Hide and Matchroom presently promote Carl Froch, Kell Brook and Tony Bellew.
“In April 2008 we introduced the Prizefighter series,” Barry says, “a knockout tournament featuring eight different boxers in a last man standing competition. My son Eddie now manages the boxing side of the business.” It’s difficult to imagine the face of sport programming if not for the experienced hand of Barry Hearn. While the last 30 years may appear to be one upward march, it hasn’t all just been sunshine and roses. Barry has endured many a hurdle including near bankruptcy in the early 1990s and a heart attack in 2002 but has returned from such shakes to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in Britain. It is frankly quite impossible to speak with him without becoming inspired. “Big dreams, big plans,” Barry reminds us, “but day to day working is crucial. It’s all about figures, television views and ticket sales. It’s a fairly clear cut approach. “You can hit the jackpot if you get it right,” he concludes. Endeavour Magazine • March 2013 • 15