‘The Barry Hearn touch of magic’: snooker’s preeminent promoter on China

The chairman of World Snooker Limited shares his opinions on snooker in China, digital rights and his thoughts on the game's future - and his own.

‘The Barry Hearn touch of magic’: snooker’s preeminent promoter on China

Barry Hearn is, perhaps, the UK’s most revered sports promoter. His diverse 40-year career has enjoyed more ups than downs and in his current role as chairman of World Snooker Limited, snooker's commercial arm, he has almost quadrupled prize money in the game. 

Never one to rest on his laurels, the Essex native tells SportsPro about the state of the modern game, his hopes for snooker’s future and his focus on developing a commercial relationship with sport’s largest market: China.

Barry Hearn’s professional ascent began when he formed sports promotions company Matchroom Sport Limited in 1982, which was initially based around snooker and, subsequently, boxing. The English entrepreneur has since been involved in a great deal of neglected niche sports such as pool, ten-pin bowling, golf, fishing, ping pong, poker and - as chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) - he has been at the forefront of darts’ recent boom.

However, snooker was Hearn’s first success and it remains a sport for which he appears to have a deep affinity. He turned his attention back to the baize in 2010 when he acquired a controlling interest in its commercial arm, World Snooker Limited. In a short period of time he revived a sport that was struggling with dwindling prize money and a reluctance to modernise commercially.  

With the sport back in China this week for the Shanghai Masters, Hearn tells SportsPro his thoughts about its future - and his own. 

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Where do you see snooker as a sport, both in the UK and internationally, in 2016?

I took over six years ago when prize money was UK£3.5 million (US$4.7 million) and the sport was down to half a dozen major events a year. In the six years, prize money is now up to about UK£11 million (US$14.7 million) and the number of events stands at 32.

So, we have got increased activity and this has come about by a revitalised exploitation of commercial rights - this is what I specialise in - and after 40 years I have made more mistakes than most but I have learned from them. I am turning out to be a rather good operator in the latter years of my life.

So, where have we got it now? I think, in fairness, that the UK is satisfied with the amount of snooker it has. We have recently signed an extended contract with the BBC for the three majors: the World Championship, the Masters and the UK Championship. Discovery has signed a ten-year deal on the home nations, which is the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Opens. British Eurosport are showing endless amounts of snooker from all around the world and ITV4 have got a contract for four snooker events as well, so we are satisfying the free-to-air platform. 

In the UK we probably have enough events but our biggest growing market, without a shadow of doubt, is China. Snooker in China is a national sport and it is part of the school curriculum in most places. There are literally millions and millions of players and, of course, they are producing some outstanding talent. Most people will know Ding Junhui but there is a whole raft of 15 to 19-year-old boys that I think are poised to take the game to the next level. 

It is a very interesting time and we are about to go out to tender in China, in the latter stages of this year, with a sale to media companies for our exclusive digital rights. Without being complacent, it couldn’t be looking better. 

Europe has become a really strong market for us via our Eurosport contract - snooker is only behind football as their second-highest ratings and they are airing somewhere around 12,000 hours a year. This has spread the game to a lot of Eurosport territories, with a lot of successful events on the back of television exposure. We also have the Indian Open which has opened up India, which is another fertile market for us going forward. 

"In the Chinese market, I have no idea whatsoever how much my digital rights will sell for." 

We are in a strong position but there is still a mountain to go. We are small fry in comparison to a lot of sports but we are gaining momentum and, I think, huge progress is continuing to be made.

What are the different modes of marketing and commercial deals you use in China as oppose to the UK?

The switch to the e-commerce side, alongside sport exploitation, is quite novel. Lots of people in America and Europe - YouTube and Yahoo! especially- are looking at following on to the movie-channel concept of membership schemes to watch live sport. It is a sort of hybrid of the pay-per-view model, which is standard in the UK and the western world for a form of subscription. This is more directly linked to e-commerce and the ability to monitor traffic in comparison to the revenue it generates from actual e-commerce sales.

There are massive businesses in China - Alibaba, Tencent, Le Sport, PPTV and Wanda - and these guys are very good at exploiting sporting rights to drive their core business. I think that this is the biggest difference which we are coming to terms with.

In the past we have looked at digital rights very much from a social media and betting sites point of view, which has been very good at creating awareness but, of course, the monetisation of that is miniscule in comparison to the levels of, for example, the NBA [National Basketball Association]. It signed a US$500 million dollar deal in China with Tencent that is a mixture of community activities and online exploitation of streaming.

In your opinion, why has a small Anglocentric sport has become the third most popular sport in a non-Commonwealth country?  

Well, I have got to say it is the Barry Hearn touch of magic, of course!

I think that sometimes you have to understand that the market is constantly changing. We are constantly searching for this millennial buyer: this dream ticket of younger demographics with spending power. To do that, sport has to move with the times towards slightly faster formats with more opportunities to gamble. In fact, betting in-running is 80 to 90 per cent of bets these days.

You need to look at formats because you are trying to engage the public in a more entertaining sphere. In other words: the mixture between sport and entertainment is something that when you get it right you appeal to not only your hardcore fans - of which there are millions - but what I want is a wider reach towards the casual fan to create events that are occasions. Something like the World Snooker Championship has grown out of all belief to something like a 400 million TV audience and with that comes a huge commercial opportunities.

"I think that sometimes you have to understand that the market is constantly changing"

However, it is a balancing act of not selling yourself down the river in terms of why the sport is played and why it was created in the first place but in a way of projecting itself as an upwardly mobile gentleman’s game still played in an entertaining atmosphere. This is where it seems to be that we have got it right against other people - our ratings and live audiences seem to say to us that we are getting it right.

How much does your own profile play in the success of not only snooker but all of your events?

I think that when you have a small company that started in 1982 with a one hundred grand shareholding it inevitably comes on the back of one dominant factor, which is usually the guy in the front.

We are different to a [Richard] Branson-type model - and I’m not putting myself in his category - which is more of a royalty franchise-based company, whereas we are more of a hands-on owner of sports. So, whether it is darts, snooker or the Mosconi Cup [a Ryder Cup-style pool match between US and European teams], we actually own the intellectual property value of the sport.

Inevitably, people do get older - including me, though I would never admit it publicly - so you have to make sure that your infrastructure is such that they are ready to step into your shoes, they’ve been trained in your image and have the ideals of what you set out to do.

I originally set out to create sport for everybody, make sure that barriers to entry were removed and that you could play at an inexpensive price because I was always looking for volume audiences. Most of my events are built around events that I would like to personally attend, that are entertaining and have a certain sparkle that was non-existent before. Look, I am very fortunate that over the last 35 years I have built teams around me in the different divisions which share the ethos of what I have always been looking for and have the ability with the younger generation to take it to the next level.

My son Eddie, on boxing, is a prime example. I was probably one of the top boxing promoters in the world for 20 years but frankly Eddie has come in with a different philosophy of quality events in an entertainment environment, and he has become the number one boxing promoter in the world. He has taken the sport to a new level and I think that is being applied in darts and snooker.

My image - because I have been around so long - is that of the Artful Dodger, the Barrow Boy or the east Londoner that made a lot of money from sport. But, actually, behind the appearance is a chartered accountant that is a keen studier of logistics. I have a group of young people that share my belief in sport, who take it to another level because the world moves on. You need young brains and I have got the best team in the world, so I am very satisfied that when I am not here the work goes on.

"My image - because I have been around so long - is that of the Artful Dodger, the Barrow Boy or the east Londoner that made a lot of money from sport. But, actually, behind the appearance is a chartered accountant that is a keen studier of logistics."

How much do the lessons you learned in snooker around the promotion of players like Steve Davis in the 1980s still hold true in sport today?

Interestingly enough, they really do. The secret to success is that, firstly, the sport has to be played at the highest possible technical level because people are very judgemental on what they are watching nowadays: the fans are not mugs. You cannot tell someone ‘this is brilliant’ when it is mediocre, so the technical excellence must remain the same for people to watch it. Format changes mean that there is a slightly shorter attention span for today’s millennials market, and one has to cater for it.

I believe that the overriding development of characters and personalities in sport is a great commercial tool, which is something that we started in the late 1970s and early 80s with snooker when we built up the persona behind the player. We didn’t change the person, we just accelerated the awareness of what type of person there was: whether it was the ‘boring’ Steve Davis or the ‘Artful Dodger’ Jimmy White. Each one had a personality cult because I have always viewed sport to be a soap opera, and I think that people need to get involved – not just with the sport itself but with the characters that are playing the sport.

We have developed that further now, where the audience themselves are part of the soap opera. They have become an important ingredient of the TV programme that goes around the world that hits huge audience figures because of the atmosphere.

Nowadays is like the 80s - which is when we really started to get into personality-led sports - but it is a hybrid and fine-tuned in terms of people understanding that we are in the position to train young people. Firstly you have got to be really good because if you are not, you’re not in the game. And, when you are really good, you have got show the public something more interesting than just what you do in the game.

This does develop a soap opera that for the vast majority of people is attractive: they don’t necessarily hate the people as you will find in a football match, they might have their favourites but not to a nasty extent. They are getting involved in watching ‘Dallas with balls’ or ‘Coronation Street with arrows’.

As interested as people are with the game, they are also interested in the superstars and those superstars have to act accordingly enough to sell the story. That is it, in a nutshell, but it hasn’t changed so much, really, when you look at it from the days we started taking snooker all over the world.

It was all built on the same principles. None of the basics rules have changed, just things like social media - whether it’s Periscope, Instagram or Snapchat - have made minds more defined and creative. But other than that it remains the idea.      

How much money does the Chinese market add to snooker?

How long is a bit of rope? It is such a new market and it is so aggressive that I have never seen anything like it in my time. Unfortunately, there is no little black book: we are not selling Ford Cortinas.

It is very much a question of the competitiveness of the market itself and the desire for the commercial strategy in sport to achieve your aims. I find myself in the position, in the Chinese market, where I have no idea whatsoever how much my digital rights will sell for later this year. I do know that it is pretty much found money: so every penny is a penny more than I had before.

You look at deals out there and, for example, the Tencent deal for basketball was US$500 million over five years, but the question is: how much attractiveness is there in snooker in comparison? If there was a yardstick at all, that is probably not a bad one. However, I would settle for considerably less than US$500 million over five years! In an open market, and I will always take what the market will pay, the transparency of a tender process would bring out the real figures. Furthermore, it would show us whether we are kidding ourselves or that they are holding back waiting for a dominant position.

To be honest I have no knowledge of it at all and it is really quite exciting. 

What can you say about this major new digital rights deal in China?

Well, it is a little bit more than just the digital rights. I am going out there with the view of forming a partnership with the sport and looking at it in ten-year terms because I think that we need to plan properly. I don’t think that we need to rush it; I think that we need to get it right. I am looking to create a partnership with one of the major e-commerce or media giants in China where all of my digital rights outside of China will be exclusively available to their sites.

I am also looking at the pay-per-view market for a head-to-head tournament in China. The idea of a Ronnie O’Sullivan versus a Ding Junhui obviously wets the lips as an opening sale but more than that I am looking at markets for the rebranded World Snooker Tour (WST). I am also looking at international licensing deals for a range of products from fragrances to clothing and snooker equipment.

It is a market that is so huge that you don’t have to be a mega-success to have a mega-business. If you throw into that potential internet access and websites, you have the basis of quite a substantial business but the secret ingredient for us - that we are so strong in - is community involvement. We are in the position to bring over stars, to educate kids, to visit schools and to inspire them. That is easy to talk about but very important to do.

"China will be the real dominant force in the wings and I would gamble on them producing ten to 16 players in the top 32 in five years’ time."

The tender process that will trigger later this year will be a much more of an all-embracive partnership, so, not just on digital rights but actually on ownership of the game. 

Last year you said: “I won’t have it on my gravestone that I was the bastard who took the World Championships out of Sheffield.” Do you still stand by that?

What a good line! One of my best quotes. And yes, I still stand by that.             

From a personal point I don’t think that I would be where I am in my life without snooker and, to be perfectly honest, without Steve Davis. We go back a long way and I think that there are debts: I don’t think that I am getting over-dramatic here when I say that I owe snooker a lot.

I have also happily witnessed some of the greatest sporting moments in my particular sport at the Crucible. I strongly believe that no matter how much money you have got, you don’t want to be like the spoiled child and have everything because you will never develop other things if you just copy what is already there.

My message to the Chinese was twofold. One is that you can’t buy history, and I think that the Crucible is the home of snooker and it will remain so for my lifetime. Secondly, don’t just try and buy it for a quick fix, look at yourself inwardly and ask yourself: how can you develop the sport to, perhaps, even greater levels in your own country? That is the challenge for the Chinese marketplace.

For the first time in my life I realised that money cannot buy everything, and it was rather refreshing.

Have you had to make any compromises? Perhaps create other majors like they do in tennis and golf?

The only compromise to me was to say to the Chinese authorities: ‘Look, you have six major snooker events in China and they can be as big as you want. They can be the biggest prize money events, the biggest live crowd, largest TV audience, but they are just not going to be called the World Championship. That event has been going since 1927 and has been played at the Crucible for 40 years.’

This thing about a spoiled child is a little bit like the Chinese Super League (CSL) buying up ex-Premier League footballers because they have the money and want them. They are spending a lot of money, and that is OK because they will get some sort of learning curve out of it. However, on something as important as major sporting occasions, it is important to have a venue synonymous with the event.

"For the first time in my life I realised that money cannot buy everything, and it was rather refreshing."

The Crucible is, of course, a dreadful venue that is much too small for an event that size but it has a unique English madness to it. In many ways, without that insanity, it wouldn’t be the same sport. Whilst my entire professional career has been built around the monetary side of sport, building profits and providing the increased prize money, there is still a level of integrity that you have to maintain. It is like playing Wimbledon in Miami, but then it wouldn’t actually be Wimbledon.

Most people that know me well thought that I was playing them for a bigger bribe, and they were quite surprised when I stood up and said that we are a highly profitable company, but not on my tombstone will I have it that this is the man that sold the world championships.    

Jason Ferguson, the chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) is keen for snooker to join the Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee now recognises that federation. Do you think that snooker at the Olympics is achievable?

Jason Ferguson is a terrific chairman of the chairman of the WPBSA and an excellent custodian of the rules. I am not going to disagree with him but it is not on my highest profile because I feel there is so much other work to do.

Would I jump at the chance to have snooker at the Olympics? Yes, of course I would, because of its credibility and the perception of credibility that is essential for all sports. However, I find it very frustrating - and I am getting too old to wait now - when I look at some of the sports that have been added. I think to myself, God, these people have lost their way.

If the chance was there then, yes, I would take it, but it is not something that I am going to spend too much of my time on. Although, I do appreciate Jason’s efforts and I hope he has the time and is more involved in the structure of sport in terms of the amateur bodies and blazers that run it.

I’m the hardnosed git at the other end of the phone that makes sure everyone makes a good living.  

Snooker’s image has changed from when you were first involved. Do you still see it as the same sport?

I think the sport has stayed the same but, like most sports, it has got more professional. Any modern professional sportsman is unrecognisable in terms of professional standards, preparation, mind coaches, dieticians and exercise.          

Snooker being an indoor sport means that it is an insular sport. Nevertheless, every sport is different and I think that there is every reason to be optimistic in building major sporting events that appeal to wider audiences. How you get there can sometimes be a bit of a lottery, but what you do is never shy away from rolling the dice. You just watch the numbers and, when they come up, you act accordingly.

Have developments in the broadcast and media landscape fundamentally changed the way promoters set about building up sports?

Yes, it has changed the whole of sport. From the emergence of Sky [in the UK] in the 1990s to today’s digital era, it is unrecognisable. However, as I say, the basic principles still apply and the biggest caveat of all is that you have to give people value for money.

"I am addicted to working too many hours a day but there is still a limit: God only gave me seven days and unfortunately 24 hours a day!"

An event has to create enough sponsor awareness to justify their investment and you have to give a good solid night’s entertainment in a sporting environment to the paying customer at fair prices. I am very keen to keep prices relevant to your average customer’s income, not necessarily your top end.

You’ve talked about taking your approach in snooker and darts to cricket and other sports. What is the status of those plans at the moment?

The state of play is that I am 68. Unfortunately, I am addicted to working too many hours a day but there is still a limit: God only gave me seven days and unfortunately 24 hours a day!

At Matchroom, we will air a total broadcast time of around 40,000 hours of sport across ten different sports that we are passionate about. We have a couple on the horizon and it sometimes takes me three or four years before I push the button. Some sports need me more than others: I don’t think I can change soccer, for instance.

Cricket, I don’t know, but we are looking at cricket, certainly. There are lots of sports out there that still have a bit of the blazer approach - they love the sport but their heads are in the sand on the commercial development of the sport. Sometimes they are a bit slow on that and they don’t have the great negotiating skills or work ethic to succeed. That’s the area that we can help in.

Where do you see snooker in the next five years?

I think that TV ratings will be on the rise. We have come out of being at rock bottom five years ago but now we are covering and growing at a rate that in a further five years’ time we will be a very interesting commercial commodity again, as we are currently in China.

China is a young market, whereas the UK is an established market, and it takes longer to rebuild an established market that has been in decline but we are getting there. Europe will be strong for us and I think Eurosport have made a very sensible acquisition.

I am always looking in five to ten-year cycles. In five years I hope to have gone through the UK£20 million (US$26.7 million) prize money barrier, which is what the players want to hear. The profits of the company will be substantially higher, which is what I want to hear, and I think the ratings will be significantly higher.

China will be the real dominant force in the wings and I would gamble on them producing ten to 16 players in the top 32 in five years’ time.