Master promoter Hearn puts new spin on 'ping pong'
Master showman launches new-look 'world championships', promising to take it global
Maverick sports promoter Barry Hearn likes to make statements as loud as Hong Kong's Noon Day Gun and his sporting events create as much smoke.
The man who dragged darts and snooker kicking and screaming out of the dingy back rooms of British pubs and workingmen's clubs and transformed them into glitzy global TV events has now turned his fortune, dry ice machines, techno lighting and music-pumping PA system to ping pong, the pejorative name for table tennis.
"It's rock 'n' roll. It's going to be high-fives, knocking balls into the crowd, interaction between the players and the crowd," rhapsodised Hearn as he launched his Ping Pong World Championships in London last weekend.
And he threw down the gauntlet to table tennis fans in Hong Kong to become part of his vision.
The rules of Hearn's raucous version of table tennis are a throwback to the early days of 1920s "wiff waff", the amateur game which dominated long before pimpled, scientifically engineered sponge bats brought to the world breakneck spins and rallies.
All of Hearn's ping pong contestants must use traditional, larger sandpaper hard bats that are assigned to them at the start of a match. The bats reduce speed and spin and increase rally length. The result is a slower game but with longer rallies and entertaining aerobatics.
Hearn, 64, aims to "catapult the game into the big league" and onto the international television stage, which he says has a potential audience of 700 million.
His event, replete with showgirls, mascots and a resident magician, was shown live on Sky Sports and featured 64 of the world's "best" who vied for a slice of the US$100,000 prize fund and silverware.
"I'm going to make them all superstars," declared the enigmatic Hearn ahead of the two-day tournament at London landmark Alexandra Palace.
Double Olympian and three-times men's Commonwealth singles champion Matthew Syed was the star presenter and pundit. He didn't blink an eye at the gaudy fanfare, eye-candy score girls, cumulonimbus clouds of dry ice, ear-wax removing techno music, muscle-bound security guards in dinner suits and whooping crowds.
Instead, Syed declared ping pong offered "a better narrative in the rallies" and was more "democratic and universal than table tennis" because the equipment is cheaper. "The purists have been crying out for this. Now they've got their chance," trumpeted Hearn.
Russia's "Magic" Max Shmyrev came through a pulsating final to defeat Nigeria's Sule Olaleye and take the cup and the US$20,000 winner's cheque - big bucks in a sport never known for its riches.
Amid the cacophony and Hearn's passion, it was hard to catch your breath.
"HELLO?" comes the gruff, short greeting on the phone a few days after the ping pong din has been hushed, the crowds dispersed and the last wayward ball collected and mothballed until next year's planned tournament.
The blunt telephone manner makes it clear you don't call Hearn unless you mean business.
The chairman of Leyton Orient Football Club and boxing promoter (he was one of the men behind the infamous 1994 "High Noon in Hong Kong" boxing event that never was and brought snooker's finest to the city) barks, "Hang on a minute", and turns to whoever he was talking to in the room. "Fellas," he is heard saying, "I've got a journalist here talking about ping pong in China, so you carry on drinking your tea and I will be right back."
Now the tone is all excited again; Hearn is back in his high-octane ping pong zone. "The crowd got really involved. They were so enthusiastic and the play got better and better. It was enthralling television and the ratings which came in on Monday were three times what I expected," he gushes.
Hearn now plans to construct a global qualifying infrastructure, starting in the Philippines, and then replicate the model as a franchise. "I am looking at the figures and I am now thinking I can establish this quite quickly and get global partners to take over different territories to build this into a really major event. The response I have had from TV companies and sponsors has been brilliant," says Hearn.
Some 100,000 tuned in and the figures will "easily grow enough to wow TV broadcasters around the world".
US TV company Fox has taken the bait and is hooked, he reveals. "They have bought the rights to the sport in its entirety for the launch of their dedicated sports channel which goes to air in August across America." You can sense the numbers crunching satisfyingly in his qualified-accountant head.
Few TV executives refuse to open their office door when Hearn's Matchroom Sport company comes knocking. Over four decades he has built up an impressive portfolio of 10 TV sporting events, including tenpin, bowls, fishing, golf, poker and pool. And he's launched the careers of a galaxy of sports stars.
"[We are] into about 600 million homes around the world at the moment. Last year I staged 537 events. And now we have a passion for the game of ping pong," he asserts.
"Table tennis is dead as a TV sport," Hearn declares, now in bullish mood. "The cameras are up too close to the players and it's too spin-orientated. It's not a thing of beauty to watch. It's hard as a spectator to become enthusiastic and want to play.
"Twenty-five years ago there were 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden watching the US Open. Not anymore. Table tennis no longer gets TV viewers or pulls in crowds. This year, the winner of the event gets about US$2,000. The winner of the UK Table Tennis Championships gets £800 [HK$9,950]. So you ask the question: what went wrong?"
Hearn believes he is on a winning streak similar to the kind you find on one of his popular televised poker games.
"The ping pong players loved being treated like stars, walking out to the music and all that sort of thing. I could see they were paid next to nothing in table tennis. I believed it could be made entertaining with a few tweaks and it has come up trumps," he says.
You can hear in your mind's ear the board of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) - "the blazers" as Hearn calls them - cough disapproval and disagreement while fiddling nervously with the brass buttons on their cuffs.
"I have not had any dealings with the ITTF. I don't find any reason to. I am very happy to talk to them and tell them my plans. But I don't think it cuts across what they are doing. You can't doubt the hard facts. They have got nowhere with their sport in terms of commercial exploitation. It's a game that is already played by 300 million people worldwide and yet there is virtually no major television event out there to garner further interest," he says.
"We are not trying to upset anyone. We are just trying to spread the word. This is not an exercise in thumbing our noses at the ITTF. I own the Ping Pong World Championships and that has been conceded by the ITTF. I am hoping they will not be obstructive. I think they should take in the big picture and see ping pong gets more people playing a form of table tennis."
Requests for the ITTF to comment on Hearn's ping pong crusade went unanswered.
Hearn admits that to give the game a killer serve to the world it needs the best players and by that he means the Chinese masters. Ten of the top 20 players in the ITTF world rankings are Chinese, including Hong Kong's world number 14 Jiang Tianyi.
"I know that China is crucial to ping pong's success. I am talking to CCTV and I have a great relationship thanks to snooker," he says.
And Hong Kong's world city status means it would be an ideal place to stage qualifying events, he says.
But like most East Asian paddlers, the Chinese like their modernity. Might they resist taking a step back in table tennis time?
Hearn dismisses such fears: "I play snooker and I like playing pool. You can play both." And he claims the change over from table tennis to ping pong is "easy and the Chinese players would have little problem adjusting".
"If I can secure CCTV coverage I think the Chinese will get into it. It is a sport that can be extended into schools and neighbourhoods without having to go down the more expensive sponge-bat route which cost a small fortune," he adds.
"You're not going to get kids to pick up the game if it is not aspirational. So I need to get my tournament up to US$1 million prize money as quickly as possible. And then we will blow the whole table tennis world up with a bang."