EXCLUSIVE: Project11 Interview Barry Hearn
Project11 had the pleasure of speaking with legendary sporting events promoter, Founder and Chairman of Matchroom Sport, Barry Hearn.
Barry shared his thoughts on everything from initial interest in sport, to the moments which continue to shape the future of world-class sports marketing and events.
What got you interested in sports?
“I’ve always been a sports nut. Unfortunately, while I’ve got gold medal ability in passion and enthusiasm, I haven’t even got bronze medal in ability. When I was growing up, I wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world so badly and when I started fighting, I found out I wasn’t very good. I’ve run marathons all around the world and my best time was 3 hours 20 minutes. Most people would say that’s a good time, but it’s not a good time if you want to win it… you’re an hour and a bit behind the winner.
“And then I came across a situation in a business light. I had my moment on the road to Damascus when in 1974 I bought a company that had a chain of snooker halls, on behalf of an investment company and they made me the chairman of this company and that was a life-changing moment in terms that it got me into snooker.
“It was helped by the BBC going live with snooker soon after I bought it, which was a great bit of luck and even more helped by the fact this tall, skinny kid came in because he wanted to play at one of my snooker clubs, and his name was Steve Davis, and we changed the world.
“The particular moments were lying in bed with the covers over your head and a little transistor radio, listening to fights coming in from America saying ‘one day I want to be world champion of the world’, and coming into the real world where you actually have to be quite good to do that. And I found out that while I was only passable as a participator, I really was the best in the world when it came to the business side. I found my niche.”
Who is your greatest sportsman?
“In terms of all-time greats, it would be Muhammad Ali of course. In my own personal life, I think Steve Davis has to be my greatest sportsman because he gave me the platform to move into promotions and to actually expand my ideas of what sport should be about… which is basically reducing or eliminating barriers to entry and rewarding ability, but creating opportunities for young people, men and women, to change their lives through sport, which has always been my major goal.”
What makes a successful sports event?
“I think live fans create a sporting event more than anything else. With all the trappings you can put on; the laser beams, the rock and roll music… all these things can be done quite easily but nothing actually is as good as a vibrant crowd because they make it feel bigger and more exciting. What you always try to achieve with any sporting event, it has to be value for money, but you try to make sure everyone leaves with a smile on their face. It ticks the box that you’ve done a good job and they are much more likely to come back again.”
What is the main difference between varying sports?
“Different sports have different support levels and also a different demographic of supporter. So what works for snooker in the Cathedral atmosphere of the Crucible in Sheffield, for example, is nothing like what happens at Alexandra Palace for the crazy Christmas party that is the World Darts Championship. You have to sit down and logically work out a pattern of achieving your objectives within a different set of rules, a different age demographic, a different sex demographic and a different sporting demographic. So no two sports are the same and you have to have a different policy for each. This year, Matchroom will promote over 650 event days globally, we’ll transmit over 40,000 hours of tv coverage of sport globally and each one should have its own handwriting and own personality.
“The best seat in the house on television, you should feel as though you’re actually at the event, not just watching on tv. When you’re at an event, we always say we’re going to sell you the whole seat, but we’re expecting you just to use the edge of it.”
Why is sports marketing different to other forms of marketing?
“A sporting event is in your face and it’s the beginning of a marketing journey, not the end. Exposure on television is something which is very difficult to value but what you must do is use it as some form of activation of exploitation outside of the TV itself. You need to use that event as your flagbearer. Product marketing is very similar to event marketing. It’s about demographics, targeting and activation. A sports event can give you the platform but it’s only part of the job that needs to be done.”
How has the sports industry changed over the years?
“There’s been an enormous change. Today’s world’s talent is king. Technical changes have been humongous from the days of linear television to satellite and cable, and now moving into the age of digital. It’s thrown up a whole wealth of opportunities to reach targeted markets. Sport has got bigger and it reaches everybody from the nationalistic approach of cheering on the England team when you all feel part of the World Cup, for example, to cheering on an athlete in the Olympics to wondering in awe of the Michael van Gerwens of the darts world and saying ‘how does he do it’.
“The world of sport is unrecognisable commercially in the last 10 or 20 years than it’s been for hundreds of years and that’s because we live in a commercial world where people do a lot to concentrate on the financial side of sport.”
On athletes today:
“I think most people are in awe of sportspeople. They look at Antony Joshua and say wow, what a specimen… I wouldn’t want to get hit by him. You establish a lot of rapport with an individual because sport has become more and more of a soap opera. So the characterisation and the personalities of sportsmen is as important as their technical ability in some respects. But nevertheless, people want to watch world class action in a world class environment because today’s big change is there’s a lot of demand and a lot of sport, so you have to create something special.”
On what creates Matchroom’s success:
“Sport is such a big, undefinable mass, so the handwriting of your events is important to put across to the general sports fan, that this comes with a guarantee that’s on the tin. You know with a Matchroom event, frankly, it stands apart from other people’s events within sectors because we are better. To do that, we work 7 days a week, 16 hours a day but most importantly it doesn’t even feel like work because it’s a passion, it’s a love, so we want to do it anyway. When you put a sports event on, effectively you’re putting a bit of your own personality on. It’s your own values and your own desire to make sure they treat you with respect and you treat them too.”
Which trends do you think will become bigger in the future?
“For the first time ever, you’re seeing a huge growth in women’s sports. We saw it in America years ago with the women’s football team that won the women’s world cup. It was amazing and everyone said that was a one off, but we are now seeing this fairer society where women are saying ‘Actually I want to play that and take me seriously’. In snooker and darts for example, we don’t have a men’s and women’s, we have a sport and everyone is treated exactly the same, built around ability.
“That takes away the issue of unequal prize pots and you’re all together. In some sports, that’s not possible on, but I think TV stations are more receptive to women’s sport than they have been before and it’s the early stages but they’re beginning to hit ratings which are interesting, they’re growing. Some of my most ferocious fans in boxing and darts are women, and that will overflow into active participation as well. There are no barriers to entry in anything these days and neither should there be.”
Three key moments in sport:
“My first would be Steve Davis winning the World Snooker Championships in 1981. Today, I can’t relive that moment without welling up. It was two council house boys that realised we’re both a bit special in our own field. That was a life-changing moment.
The second would be Chris Eubank against Nigel Benn In 1990. It came at the early stages of satellite and cable television. I’d seen it coming and invested very much in opportunity. Everything was on that. Financially, mentally, social, I believed that Chris Eubank would beat Nigel Benn that night and I went for it. And lordy lordy, it actually worked.
Finally, as far as heroes and who’s the greatest sportsman, it may just be, and time will tell, but we might have found the next one, and his name is Anthony Joshua. I think his win against Klitschko probably goes down as pound for pound one of the most adrenaline rushed, exciting nights I’ve ever had in my life, and hopefully the birth of the type of legend I want to be associated with.”