[First published at VICE Sports, 23 June 2015]
Barry Hearn pauses for a moment, the first brief silence in the room since our interview began. “It’s a bit deep this stuff Alex. There’s a fucking book coming out here.” We’ve been sat in Hearn’s Brentwood office – the home of his Matchroom Sports enterprise – for an hour before we get to this point in the conversation. In that time I’ve asked five questions.
“We’ve always got to think the worst of people,” he says, “which is sad, but then you never get disappointed.” He’s right, this is heavy. We’ve somehow veered into a conversation about doping in athletics and that’s led to a discussion about the inherent worth of mankind. I didn’t see this coming. Maybe a book would be a good idea.
Either way, a biography on Hearn would make for a fascinating read. His promotions empire casts its net over a dozen sports – from professional boxing to darts, fishing to ten-pin bowling – and his career spans four decades.
In that time, as the chairman and financial controller of World Snooker, he’s turned a sport in which competitors wear bowties into a massive, globally televised event. As the president of the Professional Darts Corporation, he’s transformed a game played mostly in pubs into a national institution, attended by royalty and watched by millions.
This ability to create a market for the unlikeliest of events has calcified Hearn’s public image. He’s been described as “Romford’s PT Barnham,” the man with something for everyone, an East End boy done good. With a cup of tea in his hand, he tells me “it’s better to be born lucky than good-looking.” He’s charming, relatable, and always good value.
“It’s a soap opera with characters,” he tells me of his promotion tactics. “So many similarities… this is Eastenders with gloves on, this is Eastenders with arrows or with cues. And the characters make the programme. The sport is a good sport, but it’s not strong enough to survive in today’s world without the characters.”
This, it seems, is the cornerstone of Hearn’s business model – bring some drama and the sport will follow. Take boxing, for example. Since promoting his first major fight – Bruno-Bugner at White Hart Lane in 1987 – he’s gone on to promote some of Britain’s biggest draws, from Chris Eubank to Naseem Hamed to Lennox Lewis. That side of the business has been handed down to his son, Eddie, but the model remains the same.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at all [with Bruno-Bugner] but I got it just right. I got a black bloke against a white bloke, I got Frank Bruno who everyone loved against Joe Bugner who everyone hated. It was a soap opera, as all sport is.”
He’s still playing that out now, stoking the flames of the sport’s rivalries. He tells me that Floyd Mayweather “ain’t going to fight Kell Brook. Nowhere near. Listen, he may beat Kell Brook, but it’s a close fight and he’s not into close fights.” Brook is, of course, one of Matchroom Sports’ main attractions. He’s calling Mayweather out.
And it’s a short jump from there to Amir Khan who he says “has a reasonable chance of getting a crack” at a bout with Mayweather “because he’s not very good.”
“Amir Khan can’t punch, he can’t do so many things. Amir Khan is a hype job. But, everyone knows that the weakness with Amir Khan is that if you hit him on the chin, he’s gone. So he’s had to adapt a of fighting where he doesn’t get close enough and when he punches, he’s always punching to get away. Brook would destroy him.”
All of this is a part of that never-ending soap opera with Hearn as the script-writer, director and, occasionally, supporting actor. He’s happy to give the press what they want because the press provide the spotlight for the drama. It’s free publicity, and that’s golden in his industry.
Hearn’s focus now, more than ever, is on pitching that drama to younger, more affluent punters, and the media – in this case me – are a key element of that. “The magazines that you write for,” he says, apparently having browsed VICE Sports, “whilst they’re a little bit left-field… are the new market. And these are the purchasers of pay-per-view shows, these are the guys that buy decent tickets or will make a journey to see something.”
He’s targeting things towards a group of “much better dressed people, much better looking girls, car parks full of better cars. They’re much younger, and you certainly see that ringside where they don’t care what it costs. It’s almost like an addiction. It’s like a drug addiction because they’re junkies on sport.”
So, sell the sport, sell the drama, and sell the tickets. Get the punters drinking a few pints and placing a couple of bets. Everyone goes home happy, well entertained, probably asking for more. It seems so simple.
The same goes for expanding his empire over oceans and territories. It’s all about market analysis, he says, eyeing up your target and executing a plan. When he first took snooker to China in 1982 – “in the days when you didn’t see cars in Beijing and the best hotel was like Blackpool Boarding House – he already knew that the sport “fitted the Asian mentality. It’s a touch game, it doesn’t involve muscular strength, it’s not terribly aerobic obviously. It’s a thinking game, it’s a tactical game, all that ticks boxes.” Sure, that’s uncomfortable for a squeamish millennial like me. But it’s a central component of the man’s success.
All of this would constitute a portrait of a successful sports promoter: analytical but charming, a salesman to the end, a trained accountant with an eye for numbers. But Hearn’s story has more to it.
In 1995, with the club on the brink of financial capitulation, he stepped in and took control of his boyhood club, Leyton Orient. He stabilised them financially and then, a decade on, took them up to the third tier of English football for the first time since the early 90s.
It wasn’t purely philanthropic, of course, but it did bring out another side of Barry Hearn, more from the gut and less from the head.
“Football just seems to change the rules in terms of intensity and in terms of stupidity,” he says, citing one season in which he gave his manager thirty-eight players, though “Even I can work out that there’s only eleven on the pitch.”
It’s that “intensity” that dragged Hearn into a legal battle with West Ham United and the Premier League for the rights to share the Olympic Stadium. It’s the issue that he’s most likely to be remembered for in his stint as chairman, and the one that – along with a heart-breaking loss in the League 1 play-off final – eventually led him to sell the club last year. “I was, he says, “probably not in the mood to come out for the 15th round having been battered.”
Hearn maintains that the decision to award the stadium to West Ham without the option of a ground share was a remarkable injustice. He’s still visibly upset when he talks about it. “It’s very difficult, he says, “you don’t want to sound bitter and twisted, but at the same time I’m frustrated by the ineptitude of those involved in the process to this day.”
With West Ham moving into the Olympic Stadium, Orient’s fan base will be decimated “within two years,” says Hearn. Quite simply, logic dictates that local kids would much rather go to the Olympic Stadium to see Premier League football that go to Brisbane Road to see Orient on a Saturday afternoon.
“The common sense was – as a legacy – West Ham [as] prime tenants [and] secondary tenants for football on alternate weeks, Leyton Orient. It’s what they do all over Europe and nobody bought into that. And they didn’t buy into it because they kept saying ‘you’re not paying as much money as West Ham.’ I said – ‘nor are we getting the same TV income as West Ham.'”
Suddenly there’s no trace of the free marketer that I’ve heard so much about: “The legacy of the Olympics is community-based, not money based. And that’s why I fought the case.”
Hearn is in full flow now. He says that it was his legal intervention that prevented the Hammers from being sold the stadium outright and essentially having the taxpayer foot the bill. He reserves a particular disdain for the Mayor of London who he says “lost an opportunity to show that he could be a leader of the future” throughout the Olympic legacy saga.
“What he came out with was very weak and very money-orientated and very unprincipled. And that’s not going to stand his political career in good stead, despite the fact that he takes a lovely picture surrounded by pretty girls on page 3 of The Sun.”
For a man who claims that he doesn’t like “government intervention in people’s lives” all this talk of “money-oriented” politicians seems quite radical. He tells me “it’s time for an ombudsman to be appointed by the government” that “football is such an important part of our social structure that something beyond commercialisation should have the final word.”
As the conversation turns to FIFA he tells me that he sees the organisation as another under-regulated body, too socially important to be run unfettered. He says that “the United Nations should take over the World Cup and I think they should take over the Olympics. Because I think both of them are the same.”
“In a way it’s a throwback to Aneurin Bevan [the pre-war health minister who proposed the NHS] and his socialist ideas, but I approve of it. Sometimes the state has to take control because individuals are not worthy of being given that responsibility.”
Hearn’s starting to see the bleakness of this picture as he paints it: “I don’t know what the answer is. I think the whole world is corrupt. And I don’t know how you really change it other than some sort of… it’s almost a dictatorship mixed with a nationalisation.
“But then the danger is, George Orwell had it dead right. It’s 1984 isn’t it? The people that say it’s corrupt take over and in time they become corrupt. Is that what we are to expect? In which case we might as well let everyone get on with it.”
I chalk it up to a rough week: Salazaar, FIFA, the never-ending stream of corruption in sport. Surely the soap opera can’t have such a dark ending. Surely the screenwriter gets a say?
“There you go Alex,” he says with a warm smile. “That is an hour of the ramblings of Barry Hearn.”