By Richard Agnew
Sport organiser and promoter Barry Hearn has set his sights on the Middle East and is aiming for a bullseye.
Barry Hearn has set his sights on the Middle East, with plans to bring top-level darts and snooker to the region, as well as his crowd-pleasing boxing tournaments. The Matchroom Sport chairman may cause more than his fair share of controversy as he drags traditional sports into the television era, but history suggests it would be foolish to bet against him. Arabian Business meets a man on a modernisation mission.
It's a warm summer evening in London's West End and the brightly lit theatre façades are coming to life. It's an appropriate setting in which to meet Barry Hearn, a man known for his ability to pack auditoriums and put on a show.
But this isn't where the Matchroom Sport chairman likes to hang out. "On the rare day I get off, I go fishing," Hearn says. "It costs me one pound ($1.85) for a box of maggots. I'm going tomorrow, so hopefully the weather stays like it is."
The challenge is finding the right sport for the right market, and the next one for the Middle East is probably going to be darts.
A touch of seclusion would probably not go amiss in Hearn's line of business. Originally an accountant, he is perhaps best known for his work as a boxing promoter for the likes of ‘Prince' Naseem Hamed, Lennox Lewis and Chris Eubank. However, Hearn now has investments across a range of sports - typically made by launching new tournament formats to compete with those of governing bodies that are still perceived to be thinking and operating along traditional lines.
Two of his main focuses are darts and snooker - sports with British origins that are growing in popularity.
"There are a lot of sports where the management has not grown with modern-day technology," he states. "These people never cease to amaze me. There is almost a snobbishness about them. They tend to look very parochially at their sports and don't think about how they could expand them globally."
"We've tried to bring them into the 21st century by laying on better events and putting up larger prize funds. And we're looking at introducing new ones all the time."
It is in Hearn's role as chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) that these tactics have probably made the most impact. The creation of the body in 1992 heralded a split in the sport that still exists today, with players aligning themselves with either the PDC or the original British Darts Organisation (BDO).
Since its inception, the PDC is seen to have increased the game's attraction to a younger market, bringing in upbeat music and background effects, developing new venues and downplaying the sport's long-held association with alcohol.
New international tournaments have been added to the game's calendar, such as the Las Vegas Desert Classic and US Open, and Hearn says the PDC will hold more than 50 events in 2009. As a result, he claims, the sport's audience is up 60 percent over last year, and around 50 percent of his overall revenue now comes from outside the UK.
Next year will see a darts competition being launched in the Gulf for the first time, he adds. "The Middle East is becoming much more sport-focused now, so it is back on my radar," he says.
"It has made a leap forward and is becoming a very important market for us. The challenge is finding the right sport for the right market, and the next one for the Middle East is probably going to be darts. The main question is a logistical one - when can we fit it in? We are looking at May 2009."The event, Hearn says, is likely to take the form of a ‘Middle East Masters', in which locally based players can take on stars such as Phil ‘The Power' Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld.
"I always like to see some local talent when we go somewhere," he says. "For example, we have the South African Open, where all the best local players play each other. The winner gets a wildcard into the World Championship, while all the semi-finalists get to play the top four players in the world, live on TV. They get a chance to see what it's like to get battered, and the crowd gets to see all the top players up close and personal."
While darts might seem a niche offering for the regional TV market, Hearn says discussions have already started with sports promoters about holding the event in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai. He says the former's Tourism Authority is interested in hosting it, primarily to promote the emirate internationally.
Certain sports, to some people, figure just above their wives and children. You have to tap into that loyalty and once you have, you are a force.
But any negotiations are unlikely to be easy. Hearn is described by one industry commentator as an "extremely tough bargainer" when deal-making and "assertive" when planning the presentation of tournaments.
Hearn - who also has plans to launch boxing, snooker and pool events in the region - insists that each party profits, "as long as they all do their job properly".
"The days of site venues paying a fee and stepping back are gone," he says. "Everyone has to be proactive and work to the common need. We have got to deliver the exposure, and they have to work to make sure the venue is full and that they have good sponsors supporting them, because they have to get their site fee back. Then everyone's happy. If everyone makes money, you will find there is a different atmosphere between you and your partners."
Sports analyst David Fenwick says match-day and sponsorship revenues from darts events can be significant, but points to the international attention that venues can gain. In the UK, Hearn claims darts is the second most watched sport on TV, after Premiership football.
"It's really about promoting your venue to a receptive international audience, especially if you can wrap features and promotions around the tournament's coverage," says Fenwick.
Hearn's events tend to be sold as a package to a promoter or venue, which typically earns its money through match-day admissions and sponsorship. Matchroom Sport, which Hearn says provided over 40,000 hours of programming last year, then syndicates the coverage to domestic and international broadcasters.
The company is perceived to have benefited from the need of 24-hour sports channels to fill airtime between more ‘high-profile' programming, but Hearn says "you don't need the largest market in the world" to make money when promoting a tournament.
"Certain sports, to some people, figure just above their wives and children," he states. "Take fishing, for instance. You have to tap into that loyalty and once you have, you are a force."He also notes the importance of packing out venues to make sure tournaments come across well on TV, and points to the US-based World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) as an example.
"The principle, especially with new territories, is ‘get in and get out'. Don't let them think you will be there forever. The WWE really showed the world how to promote sports events. It doesn't go to New York or Los Angeles. It goes to a smallish city like Tulsa. It's all promoted as ‘one night only' so guys that live in that area will think it is their last chance to see it."
Nevertheless, Hearn admits that some of his ideas don't come off. Several years ago, for example, he tried in vain to set up an indoor cricket ‘World Cup' at London's Earl's Court, where the audience would have been netted.
"It would have been fantastic," he says. "But at the time the cricket authorities were less than receptive. They asked me what type of prize money I would be putting up. I said around $1.85m. ‘You will mess up the whole system,' they said. It was the first time anyone had tried to talk me down on prize money!"
Hearn also recalls Prince Naseem's final professional fight in 2002, which followed his first and only defeat, to Marco Antonio Barrera. The flamboyant fighter, born to Yemeni parents, made his trademark, spectacular entrance into the ring, but the old magic was gone as he claimed a points victory against then-European Champion Manuel Calvo. "Naz was an exceptional talent that broke the rules," Hearn says.
"He turned pro with me and I did his first three fights, and at the end he came back to me for his last three fights. He used to embarrass me because he was so cocky, but you had to admire his self belief. As many people wanted to see him beaten as wanted him to win. You either loved him or hated him. With his last fight, it was the first time I had heard the booing start so early - in the fourth round.
"He was an outstanding fighter but in a way, he was a victim of his own hype. But I wish him the best of luck in the rest of his life."
As for Hearn's future, he has worries about the ongoing state of the UK economy, but says there is no "long-term plan" for his business.
"I don't have any ambition about what I want to do next. It's been many years since I had money worries. The plan is to have a crack. I don't spend a minute of my time doing anything I don't like. You get a bit of aggravation, but you always do. The business is secure, and the staff are great."