Q&A: Barry Hearn

Sport Business News

MEI's Rachael Church–Sanders talks to Barry Hearn, chairman, Matchroom Sports and chairman of Leyton Orient Football Club, which won automatic promotion to UK football division League One in May 2006 about all things poker–related.

Hearn's first encounter with poker was during a trip to Atlantic City in the US around the late 1990s where he stumbled upon a poker tournament and discovered that the prize pot was derived from the players' entry fees. Thinking that this was a great business model, and enjoying the few rounds he subsequently played that day, Hearn was well and truly hooked. Matchroom is now the biggest supplier of televised poker in the world. You were involved in the launch of Poker Million (in 2000) with Ladbrokes Casinos, which was televised on Sky in the UK; what made you think poker events would work on television? "I have always liked the idea of creating events that can also have television coverage and poker seemed an obvious area where, at the time, there was a lack of TV exposure. Poker works really well on television. Being able to have cameras under the table makes the viewer feel they are party to a secret and the use of graphics and statistics makes it a good show as well. If you look at that and the explosion of online gambling worldwide, it is easy to see how poker has become such a massive televised sport. Our TV ratings have been great, which makes the sponsors happy as well, so everyone is winning!Poker Million was the first TV event to pay out £1m in prize money; a week before Who Wants to be a Millionaire? did. "Has the global recession had an impact on the poker industry in your experience? "I'm pleased to say that poker remains big business for us. In a recession, sports sponsors often pull out of deals leading rights owners to rely more on gambling revenues and today's market confirms that situation. Although the gambling industry is largely recession–proof, costs obviously need to be looked at however and there are less smaller operators around now. Consolidation is an inevitable consequence. On the events side of the industry, the large poker events will get bigger and the smaller ones will die off. "What about the effect on Matchroom? "We are still the world's largest producer of poker programming, with around 500–600 hours per year and thousands of hours in our archive. We also now produce a poker radio station. As for our events, the standard has gone up due to players getting better and viewers becoming better educated. "What ingredients do you need for a successful televised poker event? "Poker is like any good soap opera–you need to build a compelling story. Televised poker always used to be about the players who qualified for the events via online tournaments. However, we don't need that now as the game has developed its own characters and the small fish have become big fish. Regulatory issues always raise their head when it comes to poker on television, but I expect to see more licensing models coming into play and the market opening up. Poker is about entertainment rather than gaming which makes it an easier sell in certain markets. "What changes have you witnessed over the last few years? "The whole television experience for poker has changed. Graphics are now a huge part of the production package and the industry has become much more creative. Formats have changed although there's a danger that some television events now have short shelf–lives. Poker brands need to start looking at new formats, such as deep stack and turbos and sign up celebrity players. Event producers must not become complacent. For example, we are looking at offering regular live streaming of Matchroom events. There's an obvious in–stream betting angle that can be brought in there. "Why isn't there more live poker programming available? "There's definitely a demand for it and what the World Series of Poker/ESPN have done with splitting its event into two tranches with [almost] live final event coverage is a smart move. There's not more live poker programming out there as some broadcasters are nervous of getting things wrong. "With some poker players having now become celebrities in their own right, have you ever offered to pay players to take part in your events? "No, we have never done that and I can't see us doing it in the future either. Some events do pay better–known players but we've never had to go down that path as we allow players to be sponsored and insist that our event organisers allow that. Obviously they have to follow certain guidelines and [UK broadcasting authority] OFCOM regulations, but it is a model that has worked well for our events. "

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