LONDON - Sports promoter Barry Hearn is nothing if not enthusiastic about his latest venture, the Prizefighter boxing tournament. 'This is the best thing that has happened to boxing since the introduction of the Queensbury rules,' he claims.
Hearn is not one for underselling a show, and has arguably done more to boost viewing figures for sport on TV than anyone else since the inception of Sky Sports in 1990.
TV viewers today have less patience and a wider selection of channels to choose from than ever before and Hearn has positioned himself to benefit from both trends.
'I originally went into boxing 25 years ago because I didn't think that the shows I was going to were giving me value for money,' he recalls. 'Boxing is too dominated by big names that don't have a competitive fight. I could tell you who was going to win 95% of fights before they began.'
Prizefighter, an eight-man tournament taking place over the course of an evening, is earthier than the world-title fights Hearn has promoted for boxers including Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Prince Naseem Hamed. In 1987, Hearn staged a memorable bout between British heavyweight Frank Bruno and veteran Joe Bugner, during one of his comebacks, at Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane ground in front of more than 30,000 fans.
Prizefighter is very different affair, however. 'It's not about using the best in the world. Nobody has said to me that it was the best boxing they'd ever seen, but people have said it was the best night of boxing they've seen,' he enthuses.
The first tournament, held in Bethnal Green, East London, in April, was won by a 37-year-old taxi driver, while the latest show featured a contestant who had called off his honeymoon to prepare for the tournament in a caravan parked in his trainer's garden. The second of the new-format events took place earlier this month at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle and was broadcast live on Sky Sports. In typical style, Hearn arranged for the trophy to be carried down the River Tyne by the Royal Marines in a PR stunt for the TV cameras.
A third instalment in the series, which is due to be held on 24 October, will introduce a new weight category; the winner will take home a £25,000 prize.
You get the feeling Hearn would love a crack at the title himself, but, although he offers a brutal assessment of his own abilities as fighter in his youth, he turned his attention to other sports. 'I was shit at boxing, but I used to travel the world doing marathons,' he says. 'I did the London marathon four times, Brazil, New York and Hong Kong. My best time was three hours 21 minutes. I'm also pretty dangerous off 18 in golf.'
Fighting out of Dagenham, Essex, the entrepreneur today runs Matchroom Sport with his son and daughter, and is responsible for creating sporting brands such as Premier League Snooker, Poker Million and Premier League Darts, among other successful launches of recent years.
The nascent Premier League Darts format has helped make household names out of the likes of Phil 'The Power' Taylor, and scored a major coup in 2006 when Raymond 'The Man' Van Barneveld, world champion with the rival BDO organisation, joined the league. Anyone who has tried and failed to get tickets to a show in the three years since its launch will testify to just how successful Hearn's brand has been.
'Sport is a soap opera, and in soap operas you have great characters,' he says. 'In the 80s, we sat down with the snooker players and said: "We're not going to change you, but we can make the most of what you are." So we said to Steve Davis, "You are going to be boring; same tux, no drinking." We told Jimmy White that he was the Jack-the-lad character. We've done the same with darts now.'
Hearn and his team have fun sitting around inventing the elaborate nicknames for all their darts players. 'We've got a great one for a new player called David Frost. We've called him Frosty the Throwman,' he says. However, he is also honest enough to admit that the Midas touch has deserted him on occasion.
'You try things all the time, and if they fail, nobody notices. We've recently launched Premier League Bowls, so we'll see how that goes.'
One of the most remarkable sporting transformations in recent years has taken place in cricket. The abbreviated form of the game, Twenty20, has flourished, and much attention has been drawn to the announcement of the $100m Stanford Cup, which takes place later this year.
'The Stanford Cup is an immediate fix and an attention-seeker,' says Hearn. 'Our strategy is a bit more of slow burner. I think that Sir Allen Stanford [the billionaire financier and cricket enthusiast behind the Cup] could have achieved the same attention with just a £1m prize fund. Ultimately, if it's a poor tournament, then the money means nothing. The only thing that's important is if people have left with a smile on their faces.'
These days, Hearn seems more keen on putting on a show than making money. 'For years I couldn't say that,' he admits. 'I lost money for eight years on Premier League Snooker, but it makes money now. The money is quite nice, but for a time it was the be all and end all.'
He says the football club of which he is chairman, Leyton Orient, which plays at Matchroom Stadium, costs him £800,000 year, but through all the highs and low his investments paid off when, in 1999, he found himself and his family seated in the Royal Box at the old Wembley Stadium for the Third Division play-off final. Despite losing, it is a day he remembers fondly.
Hearn takes as much pride in his work today as he did in the early 70s when he began buying and selling snooker halls.
'We can just do our job, but we'll never get anywhere; you have to put on a show,' he argues. 'Sure, we all churn it out and go through the motions some days. But if you put on a show and people say "I got more value", that's worth a lot'.
Hearn is now nearing his 60th birthday, but he is not a man you can ever imagine merely going through the motions, let alone putting his feet up for a long retirement. 'I've maintained enthusiasm beyond belief. I've always been half-decent at sports. I'd struggle to get a bronze for ability, but I'd get a gold medal for enthusiasm.'
* 1974-1982: Operating Luciana Snooker Clubs
* 1982-present: Chairman, Matchroom Sport
* 1987: Stages Frank Bruno vs Joe Bugner heavyweight bout
* 1995-present: Chairman, Leyton Orient FC
* 2000: Launches Poker Million
* 2001-present: Chairman, Professional Darts Corporation
* 2008: Launches Prizefighter boxing series
* Family: Married, two children
* Hobbies: Golf, running, cricket, poker
* Football team: Chairman of Leyton Orient
* Phone: Blackberry Pearl
* Trivia: Hearn appeared in the video for the 1986 Chas & Dave hit Snooker Loopy
by Ed Kemp Marketing 23-Sep-08, 16:31