Hearn pledges to bring Middle East Masters to UAE

But Mr Snooker says it will take a year to organise a world-class event that could change face of sport in Emirates.

Mohammed Shehab has the potential to make snooker more popular in the Emirates.
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Barry Hearn, the sports promoter who acts as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) and Leyton Orient Football Club, in England, has, in 61 years, gone from Essex to excess. And he has no plans to slow down.

"Every day is challenging. I do 300-and-something events all over the world, so my biggest challenge is just staying alive and enjoying it for as long as possible," says the immediately affable Hearn by phone from his Matchroom Sport office in Brentwood, just outside London. "I don't want to leave yet. I'm having too much fun and I've got a lot of work ahead of me that is going to be very satisfying."

And his next challenge could bring 32 of the world's top snooker players to the Emirates as Hearn, who was elected chairman of the game's world governing body in December 2009, continues to rejuvenate the sport. He says the Middle East region - and particularly Abu Dhabi - is high on his list of priorities for snooker's global expansion. "China is a huge market for us, as is most of the Far East," says Hearn, who is often regarded as the man who first took professional snooker tournaments to the continent.

"But what I need now is to put my head around the Middle East and see who I can work with because I think a 'Middle East Masters' is crying out to be done." Admittedly, these things take time - from blueprint to prize-giving can take up to 12 months - but Hearn is hopeful of being in the region by the end of the year to meet the appropriate people, discuss opportunities and decide upon an organisational structure.

He has earmarked October 2011 as the earliest opportunity for a snooker event to be staged - and having done extensive business in the Middle East throughout the past 30 years - he says Abu Dhabi would be his first choice of venue. "We are talking about bringing out the 32 best players in the world, so I would always want nine or 10 months to organise something of that sort," Hearn says. "The last thing I would ever do is rush. If you rush it there is always a problem. I think it is better for me to be looking at September or October next year knowing that I could bring a quality event, stage it properly, give it enough media exposure and do a good job for the sponsors and the local population."

Pragmatic and pioneering, Hearn took over as chairman of world snooker when the sport was at a low ebb. A scarcity of sponsors, a decreasing global profile and match-fixing allegations have hurt the game in recent years, but Hearn is hoping to work the same wizardry that has seen darts, since his inauguration as chairman of the PDC in 2001, evolve into what he says is the second-most watched sport in England.

The Englishman's early understanding that no sport can truly grow until talent and skill is merged with entertainment has seen him introduce radical new ideas in a bid to boost the popularity of his chosen events. His prizefighter series in boxing - a genuine knock-out competition in which eight boxers fight three round bouts and keep doing so until there is a champion - is growing increasingly popular in Europe, while his planned October experiment of Power Snooker - a shorter, more dramatic version of the traditional game - has caught the imagination of Ronnie O'Sullivan, the world No 1.

The example Hearn most often cites, however, is surprisingly a sporting modification he had no involvement in: cricket's most modern version of the game, Twenty20. "You have to continue to innovate," says Hearn. "You have to continue to look at new ideas to make sure you don't lose out on the young aspirational market, which is so important in nurturing success, and you have to keep a fresh mind. "We have seen it in the world of cricket: a lot of the traditionalists were very anti-Twenty20, yet it has turned out being this amazing success story where people who started off a year or two ago watching Twenty20 now go to watch Test matches.

"And it is the same with darts, which has grown into the greatest indoor sport in the country. TV ratings are second only to Premier League football and that is all because we took a chance nine years ago and said 'Let's do a show'," he said. Hearn now organises more than 60 annual darts "shows" around the world, although plans for a Dubai-based event earlier this year never came to fruition. Should the Hearn snooker tournament be more successful, then UAE players are likely to benefit for the increased backing it would bring.

When Mohammed Shehab, the Emirates' top-ranked player, finished third at the World Games in Taiwan last year, his success was greeted with muted response. Instead of celebrating with his compatriots, the 33-year-old found himself forced to consider his career choice. Such is the state of the game in the country, the national team have no coach and instead hire professionals from England to travel to the region to play practise games.

Additionally, since the sudden disbanding of the Dubai Duty Free Classic in the mid 1990s - Stephen Hendry, snooker's youngest world champion, reached four of the tournament's seven finals between 1988 and 1994 - the country has not held a professional competition. Fortunately, Shehab persevered with his passion and reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Snooker Championship. Later this year he will compete in the Asian Games and the World Championship, but is buoyed by an recent increased interest in the green baize.

"Things have improved," says Shehab, who plays at the Abu Dhabi Police Officer's Club. "There are now some serious sponsors who are ready to back an event in the UAE and we are hopeful of hosting something next year. There is a strong snooker society here as it is, but such a tournament would help improve interest in the game." Mohammed Hassim Raibin, the junior national coach, says Shehab needs to compete with professional players more often if he is to continue his improvement.

"To be honest, the UAE has only one player who has played to his ability and showed his talent: Mohammed Shehab," he says. "He does not need a trainer because he has reached a level where he has nothing left to learn anymore. His technique is as good as it will get. What he needs to develop further is to play against quality opposition more regularly, like they do in England." Raibin appreciates the benefits a Middle East Masters would provide to his young players and says he hopes Hearn and the WPBSA live up to their word.

"It is disappointing that since the Classic 16 years ago, we have not had any professional tournaments," said Raibin. "A Middle East Masters would be of huge benefit to our young players. But we must see if it happens. If Mr Hearn speaks to the right people it is a possibility and would be very good for the game here, but we have heard of these things before and they have never materialised. There was supposed to be a tournament last year, but because of the economical problems, it did not happen."

Hearn, however, is bullish. With long-standing relationships and extensive contracts with broadcasters Showtime - as well as close contacts at ART and Aljazeera - Hearn is adamant that if snooker's return to the region is delayed it will likely be courtesy of his company's increased schedule rather than its decreased budget. Germany will hold a world-rankings event within 12 months, according to Hearn, while Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic are all attracting interest. Brazil is also being explored for potential opportunities as snooker embarks on a worldwide promotional tour.

"They tell me there is a recession in the world, but we haven't seen it," says Hearn. "The players are making a lot of money and everyone has got a smile on their face. Whether it is snooker, darts, boxing, whatever: the industry is very good. It used to be the summer was Ascot and Henley and Wimbledon, but now it seems to be work and work and work, although I mustn't complain because it is nice to have some demand. Sometimes I don't get around to places as quick as I would like to, but we will get out there eventually. Of that I am sure."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae