Monday, 28 March 2011

Barry Hearn EXCLUSIVE interview

Snooker supremo Barry Hearn has made plenty of sweeping changes to the game since taking charge.

New events, new formats and changes to the ranking system are just some of the ways he's given the sport a refresh.

Last week, OnCue sat down with the man with the plan to assess his impact so far, more changes in the future and his thoughts ahead of snooker's biggest tournament, kicking off in April.

Here's what he had to say...

So, Barry, the draw has been made for the World Championship and we’re nearly there. Are you excited?

It’s always good. There are so many tough games and so many tough players but this is probably the most open field we’ve seen in the tournament for many years. There’s no surprise then that in the first round there’s a few ‘ouch!’ games as well. There are no easy rides. There are obviously a couple of players you’d prefer over others but a lot of big names are in one half of the draw as well, so it’s going to be tense.

What matches particularly tickle your fancy?

I fancy a lot of them but Neil Robertson and John Higgins are the two players I’m looking at to think how they’re going to perform for different reasons. Robertson is defending and wants to be the first player ever to win back-to-back titles for a first-time winner, and Higgins has come back after his suspension with a blaze of form. He’s got a very tough game against Stephen Lee, who’s playing out of his skin at the moment, so that’s a potential banana skin for him in the first round. I also think if you’re going to see surprises with big names, it’s more likely to happen in the first round before the frames go up.

As for other specific matches, I’m quite enjoying thinking about Ronnie O’Sullivan against Dominic Dale. That makes me laugh that game. Dominic always brings something unknown to the table. And Ronnie is either going to be brilliant or terrible. But I think he may be brilliant.

A lot has been said about Ronnie’s season. What have you made of it?

It’s a non-season for Ronnie. Nothing has really happened. Ronnie’s got a lot of personal issues going on this year. Separation from his partner, children maintenance and his father coming out of prison after such a long spell. That’s a lot for even any normal person to cope with. For Ronnie, who can be on any planet at any given time, it’s tough to get down to and snooker has probably seemed like a bit of a chore to him during this year with so many other things going on. But I’ve just got this feeling with Ronnie that he will literally lock himself away before this tournament (to practice hard). I don’t think he’s really played much through this year. His form hasn’t been good but we know what he’s capable of. Ronnie loves the Crucible. He loves the big stage. He wants to be the best in the world and I still think he’s the one who’s going to take all the beating.

You’ve made a lot of changes to snooker this season Barry. But this is still the big isn’t it?

Yes of course. We will always experiment with new formats, new tournaments and looking at different things trying to shorten things, bringing in different shot-clocks and things like that but when you come to the World Championship, that’s the crown jewels. You don’t mess with that.

One of the big changes this season has been the invention of the PTC series. How happy were you with that in its maiden season?

Yes I was happy with it. The PTC tournaments may only be in its first year but make no bones about it, they will be the foundation of all snooker. I’m so committed to this idea of getting people working regularly, making sure they’re competitively sharp all the time and giving opportunities to everyone without favour, privilege or reputation. This is the beginning. Overall, I give it 80 per cent mark this year, which isn’t bad for starters, but it’s been very useful for me in terms of expanding interest in snooker in Europe. For me, the new markets are Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Scandinavia and we have another ranking event we’ll be announcing this week for elsewhere in the world as well so there’s a lot of opportunity. We’re going to Brazil and the World Cup will be in Thailand. It's going global.

But I also see the PTC series as a a good way to get the kids ready for the Q School and playing games against the greatest players in the world. So, it’s been a big success and I’ll be looking to build on it for next year. The PTC Grand Finals saw snooker go back to Ireland. There was a slow start but it went very well and mobbed out towards the end. As I say, I’m 80 per cent happy and for me that’s quite high for the first year.

Is there going to be some changes to make it 100 per cent then?

We’re looking at different changes. I’m arguing with myself on lots of different things at the moment. I see more changes on countries we’re visiting and how we’re going to use the PTCsPTCs. And I will make sure that’s the case. There are no questions about lessening ranking points. If anything, give them more. I shall make the PTC Finals bigger next year with bigger cash. And if you’re not there, tough.

How do you assess your changes to the rankings as we approach the end of the season?

I give this one 100 per cent. I love level playing fields. I love competition. I don’t think sport is about being safe. I think sport’s about taking chances and making something of yourself and going from zero to hero. The changes to the ranking system at those three different points of the year has just worked really well. The idea of you just knowing you’ll be in the World Championship a year before is ludicrous because it just doesn’t represent current form. So it takes the wind out of the sails of all the youngsters trying to make their way in the world of snooker. We’ve got to give them the opportunity and I’m very happy with the ranking system. There will be no changes in that.

Have you enjoyed being back in snooker Barry?

It’s like going back out with an old girlfriend after all these years. It’s been hard work but I like to work. I’ve found it quite motivating. I find people disappoint me sometimes when they don’t give me as much support as I want but I set high standards.

The people in the offices and the people at World Snooker have come up to where I want them to come up to. We’re a lean hungry machine now and it’s making money and running like an efficient business and that pleases me. But what also pleases me is that there are opportunities around the world that we should have been looking at for the last ten years which we are looking at now and we’re seeing happen. We’re seeing a fantastic surge of interest from outside the UK in snooker. This season coming up will be the first time in history that there will be more tournaments outside of the UK than within it. So my advice to all those up and coming snooker players is practice very hard and make sure your passport is up to date.

Have you exceeded your own expectations?

It’s impossible to exceed my expectations. I always think I’m brilliant so I’m going to make a fantastic success of everything (he says smiling). No, I always knew there was a business to get out. I’ve probably been surprised at the level of support I’ve got from outside of the UK. I was surprised with how far the game has gone in China. The press conference I did a couple of weeks ago in Thailand for the World Cup was just incredible as well. We’ve got Brazil and it’s no secret to say we’ll be in Australia as well this year. We’re becoming a really global sport now. I’ve felt like that there was this chance since 1974. It’s taken a little bit longer than I thought but as I say, I’ve gone back with an old girlfriend and the good news is we’re getting married...

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