Every Christmas and New Year at Alexandra Palace there is a world darts championship, this year’s having started last week and running until 3 January. Then a week later, at Lakeside Country Club in Surrey, there’s another one.
Admittedly the latter is so drained of prestige that even the BBC can afford the television rights (for this year at least), but it’s a world championship nonetheless, with players from Lithuania and New Zealand, and finalists from as far afield as Dorset and Cambridgeshire.
The split between the two codes of the sport, like similar fissures in rugby, tennis and, of course, chess (not to mention the proliferation of governing bodies in boxing), was all about money: namely, the lack thereof for the players, and the indifference thereto of the administrators.
The administrator in this case was Olly Croft, a mutton-chopped slate tycoon who founded the British Darts Organisation (BDO) after spotting the game’s commercial potential during his time playing for, and then managing, pub teams. The maroon-blazered supremo built and ran darts as it became an unlikely television hit in the early 1980s, but he treated competing promoters – as well as players with ambitions beyond the oche – in the same fashion that the less reconstructed personalities of the sport appeared to treat their livers.
This was fine when the broadcasters wanted to show the sport, but less so when Greg Dyke of ITV decided rugby brought in more lucrative advertising, and BBC Two controller Alan Yentob (remember him?) was as likely to allow proletarian arrow-chucking on his channel as he was to leave a famous name undropped. The players, their managers – including Jocky Wilson and Phil Taylor’s promoter Tommy Cox – and sponsors asked Croft if he would make an effort to get the sport back on television, and he refused, threatening to ban them if they set up their own events. They did, and he did, excluding 16 of the most famous players including Eric Bristow, John Lowe, Wilson and Taylor.
Thus after some smaller scale events on regional ITV (Anglia’s Lada Masters coming to you from the Talk nightclub, Norwich), the World Darts Council (WDC) played their first world championship on Sky at the end of 1993, just before the BDO’s own version on the BBC. Litigation between the bodies continued for several years, and was resolved without the split being healed. But at least both sides of darts were on their uppers – until the WDC, now known as the PDC, invited Barry Hearn on to their board.
The accountant turned snooker club owner turned multi-sport promoter, who had built up his company Matchroom in the 1990s by producing hours of television to fill the new satellite sports channels, had been waiting to take over a game and remould it in his image. Snooker, where he had represented the leading players as a manager, was the obvious choice but the game’s rulers resisted Hearn’s advances, preferring to turn to the likes of Lord Archer.
Instead he moved over to darts. Legend has it that the first time he attended the PDC’s championships he ‘smelt money’, and eventually he took a controlling stake in 2001.
Now both codes had an autocrat in charge. But the PDC had at least recruited theirs. Moreover, Hearn’s appointment soon vindicated their decision to claim the means of production for themselves. Hearn took the sport to bigger, more comfortable venues, attracting a younger, boisterous audience – a move that produced a more satisfying spectacle for television, and a more lucrative one for the players, many more of whom were able to turn full-time, including an increasing number who switched from the now overshadowed BDO circuit, who had previously proved successful at holding on to their best-known talent thanks to the once-yearly shop window of BBC coverage..
Although the darts is world-class, it’s also a world-class evening. People these days in difficult times are very choosy on what they are going to spend their money on, so my job is to make the events a ‘must-visit’ and an experience for the punters when they go there, and that’s where we’ve been largely successful. When you’ve got 10,000 people watching four darts players at the O2, people outside of the UK are mind-boggled by this, saying ‘how can this happen?!’
So Hearn pursued the simple but revolutionary strategy that a sport should be organised for the benefit of its players, fans and broadcasters (you know, the ones who play and pay), rather than regarding them as afterthoughts to successful committee meetings; one top professional, Rod Harrington, has turned from being the chief shop steward to the director shaping the tournament strategy.
Unsurprisingly, darts has become a fixture on television again. Except that it’s now presented as an exciting event, in arenas filled by thousands of paying spectators, rather than a drunken curiosity.
It helped that the PDC found, in Sky Sports, a television channel with the available airtime to show more than occasional highlights, and also that Team Murdoch quickly signed up BBC commentator Sid Waddell. The Cambridge-educated sometime documentary-maker with a strong Geordie accent was better known than most of the players, and kept viewers watching and waiting for his classic lines: ‘When Alexander of Macedon was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Eric Bristow [who had just won another world title] is only 27.’
The PDC was also aided by the emergence of Phil Taylor, a former toilet-handle maker from Stoke-on-Trent whose monopoly of the world title gave the sport a compelling narrative. Could anyone stop his run? His dominance had an effect similar to the spike in popularity Tiger Woods’ gave golf. Moreover, it became clear that the only credible darts competition was whichever one Taylor played in, a key factor in the defection of the BDO’s most famous names, most notably Raymond van Barneveld, who had gained huge fame in his native Netherlands.
With Taylor as the first player since darts’ 1980s heyday to win wider recognition – as shown by his second place in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 2010 on his, and darts’, second nomination — and with increasing television coverage and professional promotion, the PDC was able to fuel a boom that barely touched the BDO. The older body remained resolutely amateur in operation (even after Croft’s removal in 2011). And though this was in some ways laudable, it was nonetheless fatal if it wished its own circuit to be considered a credible rival to the breakaway PDC. Meanwhile, Hearn’s success in transforming darts led to entreaties from snooker for him to come back to save a sport that had been reduced to a mere six professional tournaments a year; since his 2010 takeover that number has increased to more than 25.
The BDO competition still exists. It lost its cigarette sponsorship in 2003 but it has been kept going, at least until this year, by BBC coverage and sponsorship from the Lakeside Country Club. The players who become successful on the BDO circuit invariably defect, however, to the PDC, undeniably the superior version.
As Alexandra Palace is packed out for more than a fortnight and Sky devote an entire channel to the world championship, the PDC’s rejuvenation of darts is a bona fide good news story. A British sport that once looked set for unfashionable obscurity is in rude health again, in fact ruder than in the 1980s with few of the leading players carrying the drink-filled bulk of many of their 1980s equivalents, the current champion Gary Anderson relatively slimline in middle age and fuelled by nothing stronger than coffee.
But then who could argue with any game that combines the twin joys of unbridled exuberance and maths?