- British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn tells Business Insider how he resurrected the sport after “it died at the hands of ageing promoters.” Hearn, who guides the career of British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, reveals his secrets on marketing and promoting fighters. The 38-year-old, by far the most powerful figure in British boxing, also explains how he plans to conquer the American market.
In boxing, power is often associated with the kinetic energy in a person’s punch.
Heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and super middleweight contender Callum Smith are regarded as two of the hardest hitters in Britain. They are backed by another kind of power in boxing.
The power to stage fights in front of 80,000 to 90,000 people in national stadiums. To thrash out deals with international broadcasters. And to successfully market those bouts to millions of fans around the world.
Eddie Hearn wields this influence. The group managing director of Matchroom Sport has only been involved in the fight game for a decade, but the 38-year-old is already one of its most prominent figures.
He helped more than double Matchroom’s revenues to £70.5 million ($92.8 million) last year, promoting the likes of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Joshua, Smith, and super middleweight world champion James DeGale.
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In turn, he has made a number of his clients multi-millionaires. He has organised, marketed, and promoted some of the most memorable fights in British boxing history. And he has revitalised the sport in the UK.
It is safe to say he is the most powerful promoter in Britain but, speaking to Business Insider, he refuses to stop there. Hearn is now looking to conquer the rest of the world, starting with the US.
Hearn says boxing had “died” before his rise
Hearn has been involved in sports business since 2000, when he joined the family firm, Matchroom Sports, at 21 years old. He learned the tools of the trade from his father, Barry Hearn, who famously nurtured the careers of former two-weight world boxing champion Nigel Benn and five-time world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Eddie Hearn’s early roles were in golf management. Later, he headed up Matchroom’s poker and online gaming business. But it is boxing where Hearn really made his name.
Hearn developed the Prizefighter series, a single-evening knockout-style tournament featuring eight fighters competing for a £32,000 winner’s pay-cheque. He marketed his fights on social media (he has 550,000 followers on Twitter, more than many of his star clients). And he has an exclusive deal with Sky Sports that commits the broadcaster to airing 20 Matchroom boxing shows a year, up to 2021.
“Boxing needed something fresh again,” Hearn told Business Insider at a recent boxing event in London. “It had died in the hands of ageing promoters. No disrespect to anyone – my father was one of them.
“There was a monopoly when I came in. Frank Warren, he was the key promoter and had all the power. Well, we took that power. That doesn’t necessarily mean we now have a monopoly, it means we are market leaders,” he said, pointing to some of his peers including World Boxing Super Series boss Kalle Sauerland. Broadcasters have also changed the market, he said, with BT Sport, ITV, and YouTube all chasing rights.
Hearn said he offered something different to his promotional rivals as they had “no desire to push the boundaries” and were content to stage events in “small leisure centres.” Hearn, in contrast, strives to include “four or five championship fights on every card” and “go to big arenas every week.”
The promotional power shift really changed when promising English fighters Darren Barker, Kell Brook, and Carl Froch signed deals with Hearn in 2011.
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In 2013, Hearn guided Barker to a world middleweight championship title. In 2014, Brook became a world welterweight champion. And in 2014, Froch – already an established champion – defeated George Groves in front of 80,000 people in a landmark rematch at Wembley Stadium.
“We were motivated to change the face of the sport and we done it,” Hearn reflected.
Hearn continues to revolutionise boxing in Britain
Hearn returned to Wembley this year – this time his premier fighter Joshua rose from the canvas to defeat boxing great Wladimir Klitschko in a heavyweight classic.
“We revolutionised the game again in 2017 with Joshua versus Klitschko,” Hearn said. “We are continuously evolving.”
Hearn said he has made his fights about much more than what happens in the ring. “It comes down to two keywords: Perception and hype,” he explained.
“The truth is, you need to create excitement about an event, you need to enhance the fan experience when they’re there, and you need to give the perception that these events are trendy, sexy, cool, and a big night out.
“You look at people coming to events now… they’re dressed up, there are more women coming than there used to be, it is a night out. Hardcore boxing fans criticise us and say ‘oh, your events are more like a party of people getting drunk and having a dance.'” Hearn stops to smile. “Yeah, so?”
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“At our events, people can always expect great fights, great music, a good drink, some dancing, some fun, and a lot of women. Wow – and that’s the truth of it. People love to have a great night out and if you can mix that with the art, the sport, and passion of boxing… for me, it’s the greatest sport out there.
“When boxing touches you, it never leaves. I’m in now and I’ll never be able to leave. Anything else I do, will not give me anywhere near the same amount of buzz as boxing.”
What gives Hearn the greater buzz: signing a marquee athlete or nurturing a novice from the ground-up?
“There’s many different buzzes. To sign an Olympian I’ve seen in Rio, or another [Olympic] Games, like Joshua.
“Another buzz might be to take a fighter from their debut to win a world title. Another buzz might be take a fighter that was down and out, to a world title. But probably the biggest buzz, is when you see a fighter’s life change from what they’ve achieved through sport.”
Who is the best example of that? “The best example is Tony Bellew.”
Bellew has twice fought for a world title. He was dominated by concussive light heavyweight puncher Adonis Stevenson in 2013 but rebuilt his career and won a cruiserweight championship in 2016, beating Ilunga Makabu by knockout.
This year, Bellew has landed back-to-back big-money fights against David Haye. He won the first bout by 11th round knockout but faces Haye once again at the 02 Arena in London in December.
“We took Bellew on… and he has looked after his finances, paid off his mortgage for a lovely house, then bang, gets the David Haye fight. Wins, shocks everyone. Bang. Gets the rematch.”
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“You work, you work, you work for that breakthrough and all of it’s sudden, it’s there, and doors continuously open for you. Just like in business, but that’s what’s happening for Tony. When you see how tough it is and what fighters go through… that, for me, is the best moment.”
Hearn’s secrets to creating a superstar athlete
Hearn has a three-point checklist when it comes to fighter promotion:
- Keep young athletes active: “We box our young fighters as frequently as possible.” Develop the talent: “We improve them as a fighter.” Shine a light on their profile: “Profile is important and we get them a lot of experience on championship shows, on Sky Sports and now on HBO.”
Hearn expanded on the third of these points: “If I didn’t have a broadcaster, we wouldn’t be in the same position. But it’s your job to find a broadcaster – you have to go and win those contracts. That’s what we’ve done.
“Without the right broadcaster behind you, you cannot get to the position we are in. So we have long-term deals with broadcasters with long-term plans.”
The benefits of a big broadcaster like Sky Sports, for Hearn, include “cross-channel promotion.” He said: “We can take advantage of their digital services, build-up back catalogues, showcase fighters on Sky Sports News, and continuously grow the profile of fighters. The job is easier to do when you have a partner like Sky.”
Now Hearn’s targeting America
Hearn is now taking what he has learned in Britain, to the United States. He has launched Matchroom Boxing USA alongside prominent American broadcaster HBO, and has already signed his first US-based boxer, former middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs.
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“Daniel Jacobs is a great signing for us,” Hearn told BI. “But I don’t want to make mistakes others have made, which is signing loads of fighters and not be able to fulfil the dates or promises you have given to them.
“In America, fighters are not boxing enough. They are not getting the right promotion. Our sell is simple. We promote you properly and keep you nice and active. If we sign big, big talents, HBO will give us more dates. Right now, we have signed on for four events in 2018 and then eight to 12 events in 2019.”
Can we expect Hearn in Las Vegas? “We’ll mainly be on the East Coast as it’s a market you can understand. New York City is similar to London.”
Are there challenges? “We’re moving into a market where we’re the underdog now and everybody wants to block us, just like they did here when I started. But you break through, make your moves, and hopefully, we can have the same effects there.”
Who would bet against him punching above his weight?