Barry Hearn: ‘How do I make you famous even though you’re not very good?’

Barry Hearn is meant to have retired but here we are in his swanky old office talking about his certainty that his son, Eddie, would beat Jake Paul in a pay-per-view extravaganza that would generate millions of pounds. We are in the midst of a long and reflective interview about sport and life, work and fame, mortality and marriage, which includes Hearn’s memories of starting out in promotion 40 years ago in a grimy little office beneath a snooker hall in Romford as well as his new ambition to play cricket for England’s over-70 team.

“As Jake Paul has shown, you don’t have to be good now. You just have to be famous,” Hearn says amiably as he considers our changed world. “So that brings in a different expertise. How do I make you famous even though you’re not very good?”

Hearn’s passing interest in the YouTuber is sparked by the fact that, when he boxed the former UFC fighter Tyron Woodley verlede maand, “Jake Paul got a million pay-per-view buys in the States. When was the last time a traditional fight got a million buys? Canelo Álvarez fights Caleb Plant in November in a unification bout. Canelo won’t get a million pay-per-views and he’s the best boxer in the world. So we have to use different standards.”

Eddie Hearn, who is an even better boxing promoter than his father, helps to promote Canelo. The Mexican is the most authoritative presence in world boxing so surely Hearn Sr feels dejected that Canelo is being outsold by an amateurish slugger? “It’s disheartening for certain people but not for me. I made Steve Davis wealthy on being boring. It shows you can cover promotion from different angles. When I met Steve all I saw was the snooker dedication. I wasn’t looking for a personality then. The actual expansion of personalities came later. Aanvanklik, with Steve, it’s like someone having a nosebleed because they’re trying so hard. That’s what I want. If they’re not going to make the commitment, the rest is completely ancillary. Would you take a bullet for what you believe in? With Davis it was: ‘Absolutely.’

“Life is different now. Jake and Logan Paul have six packs and they’re on YouTube. That’s their brand. It helps if you’re very good at what you do but, these days, it’s not essential. The numbers do not lie – whether it’s Love Island or a million pay-per-views for Jake Paul. I wasn’t very good with gloves on but I might have had a chance against Jake. I think Eddie would beat him comfortably. We were talking about it last Sunday. Eddie would guarantee himself a $5m purse and he would probably train six months to get properly fit. We wouldn’t even do it for the money. It would just be an enormous buzz. Can you imagine?”

Eddie Hearn v Jake Paul is the kind of surreal promotion that would do huge business today – which is why a 73-year-old master salesman laps up the fantasy. Hearn Sr laughs when I suggest he could work Eddie’s corner. “Oh mate,” he cackles, “I’m unbeaten in the corner. I’ve only done it four times but I’ve won all four fights. Francis Ampofo [a flyweight in the 1990s] twice and Eamonn Loughran [a welterweight in the same decade] twice. They both wanted me to stay on but I went: 'Geen, I’ve peaked.”

Hearn Sr is more old school than his son and so, to stop us getting carried away by the idea of a garrulous boxing promoter stepping into the ring against a YouTube hustler, he ends the speculation. “It will never happen because I won’t let it. We’ve got a business to run.”

Hearn retired as the chairman of Matchroom Sport in April, with his place at the head of the company being taken by Eddie, but his involvement is still palpable in a week when, op Woensdag, he will win the Coutts Lifetime Achievement prize at the Sports Industry Awards. He is more intent on celebrating the fact Matchroom survived Covid with just a minimal drop in profits. “The figures are already at Companies House but pre-Covid we made £28m pre-tax," hy sê. “For a little business in Brentwood that’s not too bad. It dipped with Covid last year to £22m. We got super-creative. We were doing TV events, filmed on your iPhone, with darts players in their kitchens. It was unbelievable but the broadcasters had no sport.

“We’ve always been savers and we’ve never been frightened to spend our savings on a rainy day. Skielik, with the pandemic, it was pouring. But we didn’t cut a penny of prize money. We did more events during Covid. There was no crowd, the revenue wasn’t as strong, but we produced a huge number of extra hours, which has put us in a position now for enormous expansion. This year will be significantly higher because our business is about ownership of content. The more you do, the more you own, the more you make. It establishes momentum for the sports we run like snooker, boxing and darts.

“The potential for darts hasn’t even started. It’s big now but, Jesus, it could be colossal because it’s the world we live in. There’s always going to be the traditionalists saying [Hearn puts on a posh accent]: ‘Fat chaps playing darts – hardly a sport, is it?’ But gut instinct brought me darts. I loved it. I could smell the potential because there were no barriers to entry. All the things I hated were gone in darts. It didn’t matter where you went to school or how much money your dad’s got. All that matters is: Can you throw those arrows in the triple? There was a beautiful simplicity and all it needed was money. It’s easy. There’s so many people out there who’ve got too much money. It’s our job to be the Robin Hood of sports. We rob the rich. We take from the broadcaster and give it to the sportsman and woman.”

Despite his second heart attack in April 2020 Hearn still fizzes with energy. Maar nou, as he is the president of Matchroom concentrating on “group strategy and global expansion”, does he have more time to take a wider view of the sporting landscape? “That’s an interesting question because I’m so much more reflective now. We’ve got 650 event days but I have the time to step back and go: ‘What have we achieved? Have we invested enough? Are we wasting our time? What do the numbers say?’ Jerry Maguire said: ‘Show me the money.’ I say: ‘Show me the data’ – because the data equals money.

“Sports like horse racing have an inverted snobbery. They’re old money which we always call ‘fur coat, no knickers’ because they have the style but not necessarily the substance. We’ve seen real substance in attracting the non-traditional audience. Look what Eddie has done in boxing. This was my audience when I started …”

Hearn flattens his nose in a pastiche of a traditional boxing fan. “I had 500 people that would go anywhere for a fight. Then Eddie comes along and when Anthony Joshua fought Wladimir Klitschko op Wembley [in 2017], 71,000 tickets sold instantly with over 100,000 people still in the waiting room. Eddie could have sold 200,000 tickets in a day. Who are those people? The target is the casual fan. Women and people who don’t normally even think about boxing. They want a little tick which says: ‘I’ve been to the boxing.’ It’s almost a bucket list thing.

“Everyone in sports promotion wants control but they don’t have the vision of how they can really expand. Your dog could sell tickets to the World Cup final. But how do you get 7,000 people coming to [the darts at] Wolverhampton on a Tuesday? That’s when you find out how good you are.”

Hearn is still a sucker for a story. We sit in Mascalls, the lavish house which provided the Hearns’ family home for decades. Last summer, and again this year, it became the site of Fight Camp which allowed Matchroom to bring boxing back at the height of lockdown in the Hearns’s back garden. “When I came through there wasn’t anything I wasn’t prepared to do. I tried to keep it legal, otherwise my mum would have told me off. She stood out on the patio outside this office in 1982 and looked at me. I had just bought this place and she said: ‘Are you doing anything illegal?’ I said: ‘Mum, I’m a chartered accountant. We make terrible gangsters.’ I’m a Cinderella story. Twenty-odd years in a council house, Dad’s a bus driver and then I build the best sports promotion business, waarskynlik, in the world.”

There was another Cinderella story in the family this summer. Barry and his wife have been married 51 years and Susan has studiously avoided the limelight. She has concentrated on breeding horses and, after three decades of grinding work, Susan hit the big time in June. Subjectivist, a horse she bred at Mascalls, won the Gold Cup at Ascot.

Her husband was thrilled and proud – describing it as “one of the greatest days of my life” as Susan scaled the racing heights. “She’s really old school and the only one me and Eddie are frightened of. Sunday dinner? You talk business, your dinner’s in the dog. I remember when Eddie was in nursery school. He was obviously being bad because a woman slapped him round the legs. Susan chinned her. They both got banned.’”

So there was no rematch? "Geen. But it would have been good for pay-per-view.”

Might Hearn be tempted to shake up racing? 'Susan’s absolutely vehement about how terrible the prize money is in racing. I’m talking to the Jockey Club on an ad hoc basis, because if I can help in any way I will. If I was a bit younger, I’d definitely do it. I find it quite easy to see what’s going wrong in racing. When I talk to the Jockey Club, and it’s definitely early stages, ek sê: ‘What’s your position on the NFT?’ Everyone goes: ‘Pardon?''

NFTs are non-fungible tokens which can record a transaction digitally. Hearn shrugs. “I don’t know. But you can feel the energy and potential of racing.”

Hearn and horse racing make a dizzying match but the old club cricketer has a more personal sporting ambition to play for England’s over-70s team. “I’m going to have a big push next year. This summer [playing for Essex’s over-70s] I should have made a hundred against Surrey. I got to 50 and thought: ‘It’s faultless. Baz, you’re on fire, son. The moment you start believing that, it’s all tits up.

“A lot of these cricketers were much better than me years ago. But that difference is levelling out because I’m fitter and stronger. Energy eventually overcomes ability. That might get me in the national squad as a very useful all-rounder. A friend of mine phoned and said: ‘I’m playing golf next week with the captain of England’s over-70s. Do you want to play?’ I went: 'Geen!’ It looks too crawly, doen dit nie? ek het gesê: ‘Just tell him I’m coming for him.’”




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