PUBLISHED: 16:52 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
Barry Hearn has helped modify sports like darts, pool and snooker to bring them to a multi-million worldwide audience. Pat Parker speaks to him about his upbringing on Debden council estate and why Steve Davis isn't boring
BARRY HEARN, chairman of Matchroom Sport and the man who's probably done more than any other to transform traditional working-class pastimes like snooker, darts and fishing into massively popular TV sports, welcomes me into his huge office at his Brentwood HQ, and offers me a banana.
He likes to eat healthily and keep fit. He survived a heart attack ten years ago, when he was 50, and wants to avoid another, even though he tells me it was a positive experience. 'My dad died at 44 after a heart attack and I'm the first in four generations to have gone past 44. I knew I was going to get one sooner or later and it was almost like a weight off my mind. It was a little test for me, and I passed it, because I quite enjoyed the experience.'
He is keen for his staff to keep fit too. 'We have Pilates classes for the girls. There's a gym and a swimming pool. If you want to stop work and work out you can, but there are no hours. We work weekends, nights, but we look after people. The whole business is a family. No one ever leaves.'
Matchroom's HQ is an imposing Georgian mansion with a helipad outside, overlooking the distant London skyline. It was Barry's family home for 25 years and his two children, both now Matchroom executives, grew up there. Today, Barry and his wife Susan live in East Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, where Susan breeds horses and Barry fishes in the lakes of the sizeable grounds. The Brentwood mansion now serves as a suitably impressive business headquarters, where foreign clients are flown in by helicopter.
Barry, who also chairs Leyton Orient Football Club, is affable and funny, with a showman's line in patter. But he's also a shrewd businessman - an Essex multi-millionaire who started out cleaning cars for a bit of pocket money aged 12, and who now controls one of the biggest sports promotion and broadcasters in the world. Matchroom produces more than 1,100 hours of original sports television a year and its tournaments and championships, be it in snooker, darts, fishing, poker, pool or boxing, are staged and broadcast worldwide.
He has a genuine passion for the sports he promotes. 'We only do sports I have played and enjoyed. So I won't do motorsports or tennis, because I don't like them, but I'll do tenpin bowling, even though it's not very big, because I think it's a good game.'
He loves Essex, and Essex people, whom he sees as hard-working and entrepreneurial. 'They know how to work hard and spend hard. It's a good place for leisure industries, entertainment, gambling - all the things I like to do, so I'm very comfortable here,' says Barry.
And he works hard to give something back to the community too, not least by helping raise funds for the St Francis Hospice in Havering-atte-Bower. He's hosting two golf days for the charity this year. And, as the hospice's business patron, he's also keen to stress the commercial advantages for local businesses in supporting the hospice.
Barry's mother-in-law died of cancer at the hospice and he was greatly impressed by the care she received. 'She enjoyed having a sherry when they brought the drinks trolley round and they helped her gain a kind of acceptance of what was happening to her, which was lovely.
'The Welfare State was meant to be a cradle-to-grave philosophy, but we seem to have missed out the grave bit. You can get allowances for kids growing up, but dignity at the end of your life is equally important. Hospices like St Francis should send people off with dignity as a way of saying thank you to them for being good citizens. Yet they're only getting around 30% of the money they need from government and the rest it has to raise itself. So I want to encourage everyone to appreciate how valuable it is and to give something now, rather than waiting until someone in their family needs them.'
Barry was born in Dagenham, but grew up on the Debden council estate, near Loughton. He was one of the few kids in Debden to get into the local grammar school, Buckhurst Hill.
His mum used to clean for a local newspaper owner who told her Barry should become a chartered accountant, because you never saw a poor one. So, from the age of 12, Barry knew that's what he was going to be, even though he wasn't sure what a chartered accountant did. From the age of 18 to 21, his mum locked him in his room at night to make sure he studied for his accountancy exams. He duly became one of the youngest to qualify and went on to become the finance director of a fashion group, which also happened to own a chain of snooker halls. Later, Barry bought up the Lucania snooker halls and began to set up amateur tournaments.
One day in 1976, 'this little ginger fella' walked into the Romford snooker hall and asked to play in a tournament. The legendary partnership between Barry and Steve Davis had begun. 'I've managed him for 30 years now.'
In 1982, Barry sold the snooker halls for around £4 million, and considered retiring. 'But then I thought I'd better spend it, otherwise I'd be demotivated. I was only 34.' So he bought his Brentwood mansion, and went on to manage a stable of budding snooker stars in addition to Davis. Barry realised that in order to engage TV audiences it was important to create a cast of colourful characters.
'I've always believed that sport is soap opera. You have to have characters.
So I'd say, right, Jimmy (White), you're jack-the-lad. Tony Meo? You're Italian, so you cry and eat a lot, and Dennis (Taylor), you're the Irish bloke, you tell jokes. It was based on their real characters, but we just concentrated on it a little more.'
And Steve Davis? He was to be the boring one. 'He said, "I should be good at that". I said, "You should be sensational".' Actually, he isn't boring at all. He's very dry, very funny, and a great ambassador for sport, but he's made a lot of money out of being boring. You remember his Spitting Image puppet - Steve 'Interesting' Davis? I bought him that for his 40th birthday.'
He used the same technique when he moved into boxing, promoting Chris Eubank and encouraging him to adopt his idiosyncratic image. 'I think it was Chris who suggested the monocle. I said, "If it's good enough for Terry Thomas, it's good enough for you".' When Barry arranged the fight between Eubank and Nigel Benn, it sold 47,000 tickets.
He's done the same with darts, giving his players nicknames, personas, even their own entrance music. As chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, he has helped transform the game into a multi-million pound sport, with championships in venues such as Las Vegas and London's Alexandra Palace.
Barry's genius lies in understanding the mindset of working-class sports fans. 'They just want to be entertained. If you're in a normal 9 to 5 job, how do you get through the week? You've got to have some fun. Tomorrow night I'll be in Newcastle for Premier League darts, and there will be 6,500 people there, watching darts, having a few pints, and going home with a smile on their face. Some don't know whether they'll be in a job in six months' time, but they'll have a good night out, and we cater for them.'
Barry says his aims are simple. 'I want big TV ratings and I want the events to play in front of sold-out houses.' But he's also proud of what he has done to raise the profile of activities once dismissed as pub games. 'I think we've given working-class sports the respect they deserve.'
The golf days to raise money for the St Francis Hospice, sponsored by Matchroom Sport, are on June 4 at Warley Park Golf Club (£400 for a four-ball team) and on September 30 at Maylands Golf Club, Romford (£320 for a four-ball team). For more information, contact Frances Chuter on 01708 771407 or email email@example.com.
For details about building a business partnership with St Francis Hospice, please call Alistair Heron on 01708 771417 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make an individual donation, please call the fundraising team on 01708 723593 or write to St Francis Hospice, The Hall, Havering-atte-Bower, Romford, Essex RM4 1QH