If boxing was Barry Hearn’s first love, and snooker was where he first made his name as a pioneering innovator, it is darts where his influence has been most evident in recent years.
Since taking charge of the Professional Darts Corporation in 2001, a derided pub game has become a marketable monster. While the British Darts Organisation continues to exist in opposition to the glitz and glamour of Hearn’s well-oiled machine, its setup is little more than a reminder of where darts sat before being whisked into the global domain.
To Hearn’s critics, the Matchroom mogul has chanced his arm, stripping a once intimate pastime of its soul.
Yet, the transformation that the sport has undergone under his watch places it out on its own as Hearn’s most impressive achievement. With the PDC World Championship rolling into town for a 25th year this week, it is a revolution that, even by his own admission, has produced startling results.
“I always like to be seen to be totally cool and to say: ‘I told you so’ but I have to actually pinch myself behind closed doors all the time,” Hearn admits as we talk in his office – a grand, secluded manor house that was once his home.
“I did think there was potential in those early days, but I could not anticipate in any way that it would turn out to be Sky’s second highest rated sport behind Premiership football.”
That Sky annually dedicates one of its channels solely to darts when the flagship tournament comes around merely highlights the sport’s remarkable move into the mainstream sporting consciousness. Only three pillars of sporting tradition have been granted similar temporary arrangements: the Ashes, the Masters and the Ryder Cup.
It is all a far cry from the days at Purfleet’s Circus Tavern, where Hearn was first tempted to add the oche to his portfolio.
“I went down to the Circus Tavern with one of the guys who’d asked me if I’d get involved and as I walked in, I had the same feeling as when I first walked into a snooker hall. This is where I like to be.
“There were blokes having a pint, having a bet, having a cigarette, having a laugh and a joke, and watching world-class sport as well. And I remember turning around to one of the guys who took me there, trying to get me involved, and I said: ‘I can just smell the money.’”
“We took the same attitude as I took to snooker in the early days, which was we have to be very professional but we have to be entertainers as well. You might play terribly in a snooker match but could get out of it by playing 15 minutes of trick-shots at the end and leave people with a smile on their face.”
For Hearn, the mass appeal of darts was in its sense of familiarity with the British public. Such was its uncomplicated nature, there was an opportunity to build a sport that could transcend class – especially enticing at a time where memberships at private clubs were pricing many people out of other sports.
“Darts was just something that everyone had played at some stage – with your mum, with your family in a garage, in your bedroom – anywhere.
“The game had never received much attention because powers that be looked down on working class people. So, I just took the same snooker attitude and looked at how we’d made snooker so big in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was all about more tournaments, more prize money, changing the perception of the sport – that it was a real sport – just the same as running 1500m in record time. The attitude, dedication and determination of these darts players was the same.
“When we looked at darts, I didn’t look at averages or anything like that. I just saw enthusiasm and I saw ordinary people with extraordinary ability. So, without saying that I saw the vision of the future – which I didn’t – and saying it would be a huge global sport, I thought it might be fun.”
It is no surprise that Hearn and darts have become such a successful combination. He is a man of few frills – honest and forthright on what attracted him to such a simple game.
“It’s a bit like cooking a meal,” he explains.
“If you put all the right ingredients into a pot, you just light the flame underneath it and it cooks. If you’ve got the right ingredients, it produces a great meal. If it doesn’t, it’s a shit meal. And sometimes you don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out until you taste it. But in darts, I had the right ingredients.
“And yet, the game itself is something that’s simplistic to watch and impossible to do. It has that lovely balance of looking so easy. I’ve tried it and I’m completely useless but I can’t see why. I have a dart in my hand, I throw it at a target.”
Despite the sport’s undeniable recent success, Hearn’s explanation of the sport’s simplicity continues to be used as a stick with which to beat darts’ credibility. For those sceptics, it lacks the physical exertion or toned and hulking figures of the archetypal sportsman.
Yet, it is the very absence of the extraordinary and unattainable in the sport’s players that, for Hearn, has made the game so popular.
“I was looking at the players and thinking: ‘Jeez, he looks like the bloke who lives around the corner from me.’ You know, there was nobody that was going to run the 100m faster than Usain Bolt. They were just very ordinary people.”
Yet, the PDC’s success in transforming these self-confessed unremarkable men into global stars has led to bitter acrimony with the BDO, whose stubborn refusal to change has seen them completely left behind.
Hearn acknowledges his role in fuelling and increasing the rupture between new and old, but is unapologetic.
“My job was to hold out the hand of friendship to them when I first took over. I said to Olly Croft, who was head of the BDO: ‘Look, I’m not party to this history. Shall we sit down and talk and see where we are?’ And he wrote me back a line and just said ‘I see no point for a meeting.’ I wrote back and said to him: ‘In that case, I will fuck you within every inch of your life.’ And I have.
“I didn’t destroy them but I don’t want to destroy them because they do a job. But they’re not professional and they don’t run the sport in the way that they thought they ran the sport. Sport is run by excellence.
“We developed more tournaments and more activity and because of that, the players had an opportunity to earn a living, which meant they had the opportunity to go full-time. By going full-time, it meant they could put in more practice and, of course, that improved the standards.
“Now, kids are coming through that perhaps weren’t very good at cricket or football or whatever because they’ve got a dartboard in their bedroom.”
Hearn’s strategy for improving the sport’s standards is simple but based on the most solid of logic. And judging by the increase in the overall standard of play, the gamble has paid off. The depth of talent among the world’s top twenty players is immense. Indeed, Gerwyn Price, the world number sixteen, was a professional rugby player before retiring to focus on darts.
“If you look at the winning average when I took over, the World Championship was won on an average of high 80s. Today, if you’re not averaging 110 you’ve got no chance.”
Through all the change that Hearn’s time in the sport has brought, the one constant has been Phil Taylor – a sixteen-time world champion and, for a long time, the sport’s only real recognisable face. As he prepares to retire in less than a month – a galling prospect to many, for whom the PDC and ‘The Power’ are intertwined – Hearn confesses that the Taylor brand has been fundamental to all that the sport has achieved.
“A decade ago, we were probably over-reliant on Taylor. When I looked at that, which we did 10 years ago, it was a logistical infrastructure exercise. Take out the sport and just look at it as a business – you need to develop new products.
“When you’ve got one product, especially a human-being, they’re frail, they die. Their form disappears or their hunger disappears for whatever reason, in the same way that people’s taste may move on from buying a pen to something that’s more electronic.”
It is no coincidence, therefore, that having won 11 of the first 13 world titles up to 2007, Taylor has won just three since.
“We looked at the future,” Hearn says. “The first job was to create the infrastructure of the tour and then learn and copy from other sports that had done it right.
“And the one sport that I always thought had really good infrastructure was golf.
“You look at creating the tour card – this Willy Wonka golden ticket that means so much that they aspire to be a tour card holder.
“You’ve got to make sure they’ve got a tour that can change their lives. With that tour, the tour card becomes essential because it gives them a chance. If they’re not good enough, by the way, they’ll look in the mirror and disappear. Subsequently under that, how do you get on the tour?
“And again, following the golf model, you have Q-School. It’s open doors. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man, a woman, black, white, Muslim or Christian. There are no barriers to entry. The key thing for me on all sport is taking away barriers for entry.”
For Hearn, brought up on a Dagenham council estate with little money and raised only by his mother, making darts a sport for all has been crucial for him. Last week, he removed entry fees from tournaments, allowing players to take part without feeling pressurised financially.
“Then we looked at the next generation as that’s what we had to be investing in. So we’ve got the developmental tour that’s come along for 16-22 year-olds. And of course, sometimes people bottle it or have a bad week or a headache or whatever so we started the Challenge Tour for people that went to Q School but didn’t get their Q-Card.”
This year has vindicated the system, with former electrician Rob Cross – last year’s Challenge Tour champion after failing to secure his Q-Card – climbing the world rankings to the point that he is the bookmakers’ fifth favourite to leave Alexandra Palace as the new world champion. It is a success story that excites Hearn, highlighting the genuinely prosperous career that darts can now offer.
“They’re only playing for £2,000 first prize on the Challenge Tour. But there are 20 events, so they’ve got something to get their teeth into. He won that last year and now, a year later, he’s in the top 32 in the world, which is unbelievable.
“When you say a life is changing, Rob Cross is going to earn £300,000 this year in his first year as a pro. It’s not Premiership football money but, again, it’s money people can associate with. People can’t associate with Premiership football money anymore. It’s just another world – it’s like another currency.
“The real world is about value for money for punters who buy tickets, it’s value for money for the broadcasters by way of the ratings, value for money for sponsors because the ratings are so high, and an opportunity for players without any restrictions to say: ‘if you’re good enough, you can change your life.’ That motivation alone for people with sufficient work ethic generally works.”
And as the World Championship begins on Thursday evening, all that Hearn has worked towards will be put into practice. Some people will never be convinced by his motivations, but the sight of players competing at Alexandra Palace for a £400,000 prize in front of sellout crowds is hard proof of all that he has set out to achieve.
“For a working man that looks like a man you’d see down your street, who goes from £20,000 as an electrician to £300,000 – or to £3m in Michael Van Gerwen’s case, that’s proper money,” he says, smiling.
“And we live in the real world.”