“It’s a strange thing about this Covid epidemic,” Barry Hearn says, in a contemplative mood. “I find it really stimulating in a bizarre way. We’re against the odds, everything’s in bits, everyone’s nervous. It’s a dreadful thing for so many people. And yet life must go on. And sport in particular.”
Perhaps it will not remotely surprise you that even in our darkest hour, Hearn has somehow managed to locate the silver lining. Salesmanship always did come naturally to the veteran promoter, albeit one currently devoid of any events to promote. It is why he enthuses about the return of live sport with the zeal of an evangelist, one who also just so happens to have shares in the church.
The absence of sport has been a drain not just on the finances of his Matchroom empire but on patience. “I’ve been lost,” he says from his home in Essex. “I love the business and when it’s not there you have a flat feeling. We talk about mental health. Well, the mental health of a nation is strengthened by sport.”
And even if that strikes you as something of a bold claim to make for the Championship League snooker in Milton Keynes next week, after nearly three months in lockdown we may just be grateful for whatever we can get. The start of the league on 1 June, featuring 64 players, will mark the return of professional sport to British shores and British screens. However, it has not been a simple undertaking.
From the moment players, referees, technicians and support staff arrive at the Marshall Arena they will not be allowed to leave until the tournament is over or they are eliminated. No member of the public will be admitted. The venue will be sanitised for 72 hours beforehand. Everyone will sleep at the on-site hotel of which the tournament will have exclusive use. The operation involves over 100 personnel, all of whom will have to test negative for Covid-19 before they are allowed over the threshold. If it passes without a hitch, a rescheduled world championship could follow at the end of July.
“We’ve created a health structure way beyond any other sport,” Hearn says. “Certainly far beyond Premier League football. So it’s quite an expensive operation but there is a desire to get things going again. It’s a wonderful trial for other events behind closed doors. If we’re functional we may have taken the first small step on the journey back to normality.”
Of course, snooker without crowds is a fairly uncontroversial prospect andnot vastly different from the experience at many of the smaller tour events. But what of his other staple sports like darts and boxing, where the audience and the atmosphere are an essential part of the experience?
The Professional Darts Corporation has enjoyed some success with its Darts at Home tour but Hearn admits sport behind closed doors can only ever be a stopgap. “After a while, I think the novelty dies off,” he says, “and people will really understand how much we miss atmosphere in sport. But I’m anticipating that from around July, when the government announces the next stage of its plan [for exiting lockdown], we will be allowed some type of crowd. Whether it’s 50%, 25%, 1%: who knows?”
These are the sorts of compromises into which sport will increasingly be forced, whether it is playing without crowds, dramatically reducing capacity or undertaking rigorous safety procedures. One potential consequence of a contracting market is that administrators will need to be far less squeamish about where their revenue comes from.
Hearn and his son Eddie have already attracted some criticism for staging events in Saudi Arabia. Eddie took Anthony Joshua’s latest heavyweight fight there and a World Snooker Tour event is scheduled in Riyadh for October but the older Hearn believes that in the post-Covid world such compromises will become more commonplace, not less.
“We’ve all got to live in the real world not the world we want to live in,” he says. “The live gate is a big percentage of your income and if that’s going to be lost you’ve got to find an alternative source of revenue. TV companies are also suffering. Sponsors will be suffering. So you’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when they come up.
“Boxing may have to take a couple of big fights to Saudi Arabia. I know everyone’s very anti-gambling sponsorship but without gambling income it’s another kick in the teeth. So I think the secret is common sense. There’s a limit to bailouts and loans. You’ve got to be smart, creative.”
These are the questions that have been exercising Hearn during these long, barren weeks. His exercise regime, by contrast, has been strictly circumscribed on medical advice after a heart attack last month. It was his second following a far more serious episode in 2002 and yet he discusses this latest mishap with a strange mixture of inconvenience and embarrassment.
“It was a mild heart attack. I was back to work straightaway. Those poor bastards in the NHS under supreme pressure, the last thing they want is some old fart coming in with a few chest pains. But anyway, they did a great job, they’ve stuck a couple of stents in. Yesterday I got the OK to go up to 50 minutes of exercise a day, which is my little treat.”
Perhaps it is only when we are unable to move forward that we start to look back and you idly wonder whether this latest brush with mortality, coupled with the grave times through which we are living, have managed to impart some fresh perspective. Hearn is 71, an age at which many men begin to scale back their ambitions, take stock and find the shape of what matters to them. He has just launched Matchroom Live, a streaming service offering reams of classic sporting footage from the company’s dusty archives: Benn v Eubank, Joshua v Klitschko, Van Gerwen v Van Barneveld.
“You watch yourself grow old on TV,” he says with a poignant, uncharacteristic melancholy. “I don’t hit the ball as far off the tee as I used to. I don’t hit sixes any more. We’re all getting a bit older.”
That perspective extends to business: a business Hearn started in the 1970s when he bought his first snooker hall in Romford and signed up an emerging player called Steve Davis. Later it would be the big fight nights: Frank Bruno, Eubank, Lennox Lewis, Prince Naseem Hamed. Or darts, or pool, or ping pong, or the weirdly popular fishing extravaganzas. All of this is on hold and Hearn is relishing the prospect of resumption.
Even so it is while chatting about how the enforced layoff may affect Matchroom’s bottom line that perhaps the most surprising revelation of all arrives: an admission that, for all the turmoil encountered, for all the turmoil to come, there are bigger issues at stake.
“My financial year ends on the 30 June and I’m expecting a small but not substantial reduction: 15% down, which is no problem. If we get back to near normality, our business won’t be dramatically affected. If we don’t, it could be dramatic. If there’s a second spike [of the pandemic], we’re absolutely buggered. The country’s going to be paying off this epidemic for 10 years.
“But there’s the quantum moment: after a while you think so what? Business is business. We play to win and we judge our success on profit and loss but when you see this epidemic and the problems it’s caused, it’s not necessarily so important any more.”
Can it really be? Has the country’s best known sporting speculator really learned to look beyond the bottom line? Or is it simply another ripping yarn, another canny line from an operator who has always had an uncanny flair for reading the room?
With Hearn you can never quite be sure but, as ever, if there’s a silver lining in this murky new landscape you can generally count on him to find it.