There is not much that leaves Barry Hearn lost for words. But after what the 72-year-old admits has been the most turbulent 12 months of his professional life, the prospect of a sold-out Crucible on 3 May for the crowning of snooker’s next world champion forces even the effervescent Hearn to pause. Then, he utters one word. “Special.”
Saturday marks the start of the 2021 world championship, almost 40 years to the day since Hearn sprung on to our screens for the first time, when he raced down the steps of the Crucible to embrace his friend and client, Steve Davis, after he won the first of what would be six world titles. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about that,” he says. “It was a crucial point for me in my life because I’d found my niche. Some people aren’t that lucky. Can you believe it’s been 40 years? I think we’ve done OK since then, haven’t we?”
Not even Hearn, who has seemed to be one step ahead of the curve ever since he bought the Luciana Billiard Halls in Romford just before snooker exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1970s, could have predicted the events of the past 12 months, though. “This has been the toughest year I’ve known,” he admits. “Economic crashes, recessions … they’re a walk in the park compared to Covid, mate.”
Hearn insists it could have been easy for snooker to take a year out, with cash in the bank and minimal pressure to carry on. Instead, it was the first major sport to return to action last June, and just a few weeks later, fans were in attendance for the rescheduled 2020 world championship, albeit for a short period before government guidelines changed again.
Snooker’s resilience has paid off, though. After keeping all their domestic events on, and honouring every penny of prize money to the players, spectators will return to the Crucible on Saturday. Initially capped at 50% capacity – around 450 seats – for the opening round, restrictions are scheduled to ease as the tournament goes on, with the expectation the venue will be at full capacity for the final on the Bank Holiday weekend.
Spectators will need to return a negative Covid test in the 24 hours before attending and will be required to take another test away with them for the days following their visit. Play begins in Sheffield on Saturday morning when the defending champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, begins his quest to surpass Davis and claim a seventh world title against the debutant Mark Joyce, and for Hearn, it is a case of hard work paying off once again.
“We’ve earned this,” he insists. “We’ve done more events in the last 12 months than we had in the year pre-Covid. It’s impossible to believe. But Public Health England have consistently told us our protocols are exemplary, and we’ve earned the right to be a key step on the road to normality.
“We’ve sold about 60% of tickets so far, so there’s still time to get booked and get down here and be part of something special. Snooker fans are incredibly loyal, and they’re going to get a reward for that. We could have closed the doors for a year, but we needed to give people entertainment in these difficult times. It’s very uplifting.”
As philosophical as he is business-savvy, Hearn believes snooker is stronger than ever for its year of adversity. “We’re coming out of this almost unrecognisable,” he says. “We’ve grown together as a sport. Hopefully, the long-term impact of Covid gives us a greater understanding of how important sport is. Sport is what brings us together. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, or where you’re from, it’s about your ability when you play.”
Hearn hopes the whole tournament will still sell out, but understands there may be hesitation from some to returning to indoor events. However, the trust the tournament has received in being the first to open up its doors is perhaps another sign of its place in the sporting landscape.
“There’s been some wonderful moments at the Crucible which stand the test of time, and I think these next two weeks will be another,” he says. “There’s over 500 million people around the world watching this little 900-seater venue. There’s really nothing like it. And with fans there, it’s going to be something to cherish.”
And for everything he has done throughout his illustrious career, where will the emotions Hearn experiences on Bank Holiday Monday rank as he sits inside a sold-out Crucible? “Right up there at the top. It has to be.”