Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Talking darts: Chris Murphy on commentary, the great Sid Waddell and media coverage

Posted on 12 October 2018 by Nick Friend

There is not a sport without a recognised voice. Each and every one has its familiar noise, a distinct sound unmistakably entrenched it its game, the mere sense of which provides a blanket of reassurance to its audience. Attached to each iconic tone is a name that – over time – marries itself to its game, so much so that to list one is to name the other.

For Richie Benaud, see cricket. For Peter Alliss, golf – his vocal chords etched over the sport’s past, both immediate and distant. Bill McLaren, Barry Davies, Murray Walker, Henry Blofeld – four men, four sports, four inextricable links. Sport is awash with this attachment between action and voice, perhaps because of the essence of the commentator’s role. In effect, the job is to guide the viewer on a journey from the comfort of one’s sofa – to be the main character, but never to star.

It is why Dan Maskell’s trademark “Oh I say” entered Wimbledon folklore; it is why Kenneth Wolstenholme’s 1966 “They think it’s all over” has become an ageless memory of a triumph, by the day, increasingly consigned to history.

In Wolstenholme’s case – and in that of one of his many footballing successors, Martin Tyler – their finest lines captured already extraordinary moments. Wolstenholme bringing World Cup glory to England, Tyler calling Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp title winner.

Arguably, however, none have captured or influenced a sport quite like Sid Waddell. I say this not to diminish his peers, but to accentuate his role – one so great that darts’ World Championship trophy was named in his honour. Not only the voice of darts, darts was the game of Waddell. The two are intertwined, an unlikely amalgamation that added a then-unknown layer to a sport otherwise wholly reliant on two players, six darts and a board, 237 centimetres from one another.

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As Chris Murphy explains: “When I heard Sid Waddell, it taught me something so important in the game of darts – that the commentator does occasionally have to become the entertainment itself because there are periods in darts matches which are not terribly exciting, especially in a long game.

“When it’s not near the end and it’s already obvious who’s going to win, it was those kinds of moments where Sid would become the entertainment.”

Murphy is, by his own admission, one of the beneficiaries of what the late Waddell proved to be possible. On screen and on radio, quite simply, the game has never been so popular. To underplay Waddell’s part in that rise is to delude oneself. His excitable tones were half the thrill of a sport that Murphy – who commentates on the European Tour and PDC Pro Tour – has followed since his childhood.

“There were two reasons why I even started watching darts in the first place,” he explains. “One was Phil Taylor because of how dominant he was as a sportsman. Having started watching the sport, the commentary of Sid Waddell then became just impossible not to want to watch.”

His passing in 2012 caused an emotional outpouring that reflected his importance – it was the realisation that an immortal linchpin of the sport had gone, with darts forever indebted to his quick wit.

“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer; Bristow’s only 27” – an iconic line – and one of many – that epitomised Waddell’s unique mind. It is an inimitable style that has left Murphy and his peers both with opportunity as well as pressure.

“When I started watching darts, I had never heard anything like Sid Waddell,” he says.

“That finally got me hooked – it broke all the rules. Everything that had come beforehand and that you heard in football was fairly standard and you felt that you could emulate it. When you play a computer game like FIFA, it often doesn’t feel much different to the commentary that you might hear on Match of the Day.”

It is a piece of self-advice that Murphy has taken with him in his own career. The thought of replicating Waddell is not just imprudent, but almost impossible. “Commentary cannot be a competitive sport,” he says – wisely. “It’s just about having your own style. If you do you, you’re onto a winner.

“Often the game will take over, and you have to allow that to happen as well. Just because you’ve researched a load of statistics, it doesn’t mean you have to mention them all. There are some games where you can have all the research you want but you sit down and the drama just takes over – or there’s a bit of needle or there’s just a lot of top-quality action and then you become consumed by the match.

“Primarily, I’m a darts fan, so being in that position, I am able to sit and ask myself what the fans are thinking as they’re watching the same game and listening to me, so I do try and reflect that.”

Murphy is a key figure in a new wave of social media, of live-streamed commentary. Five years ago, he wrote an academic dissertation on the state of the media coverage of darts or its absence thereby.

It has left him with a skillset that makes him – if not a darting oracle – certainly a man with an enhanced understanding of both the progress and the challenges still facing a sport that has enjoyed enormous and unprecedented growth in recent years.

This year’s World Championship final was televised globally. The morning after Rob Cross’ landmark victory over the retiring Phil Taylor, images of Cross ventured onto the back pages of British newspapers – an almost unheard-of occurrence in an era where coverage of the sport has proven bafflingly lopsided.

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In December 2017, Talksport signed a deal with the PDC to provide live audio coverage. Meanwhile, Sky Sports dedicates a channel to the sport in the month of the World Championship every year, with the BBC providing live coverage of last month’s Champions League and ITV showing a variety of global events – from Melbourne to Berlin to Minehead. The PDC itself has set up PDCTV-HD, supplying live-streamed coverage of European Tour events and Players Championship events to subscribers worldwide.

The darting world can scarcely have done more for its own cause. Between the PDC and BDO, live darts has appeared on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky Sports and BT Sport since 2016. No other sport can lay claim to such a wide berth of Britain’s terrestrial and paywalled television. However, in traditional print media, progress has been slower.

It is a trend that has frustrated Murphy, with a regular annual pattern emerging that does the sport’s magnitude a disservice. The World Championship is – as it should be – the sport’s pinnacle. The December fortnight has also become the sport’s interest window from traditional outlets, with the majority of a packed darting calendar regularly ignored.

“I get frustrated because it feels like a lot of stories are saved up by the written media for the World Championship,” he admits.

“There are many reasons why it doesn’t get the coverage it deserves. Part of it is the late finish times at tournaments, which means that the deadline has passed before an evening finishes, for example.

“What I do find frustrating is occasions like when the World Matchplay was on. There was not even a mention of it anywhere in the mainstream – not just in newspapers but in other sports news outlets as well. If you look at the BBC, they were carrying stories from some sports which don’t get anywhere near the kind of coverage that darts does.

“Yet, they didn’t even mention that Gary Anderson had won the World Matchplay that night, and I find that kind of thing really frustrating. At the end of the day, the more mainstream it gets, the more beneficial that will become for everyone involved.”

For all the work done by the PDC, there remains an element of stigma that hangs over the sport of darts. As Murphy points out, the fact that so many are solely obsessed by the World Championships and the social legend of Alexandra Palace does suggest that, to many, an evening at Ally Pally remains a night out rather than one of elite sport. Of course, this is not – in itself – a problem. Much of the game’s recent success has come through combining sport with entertainment.

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However, as Murphy highlights, the stories to emerge from the tournament are often of beer stats, of the wackiest and wildest fancy dress. It is a narrative that has been done to death – and at the expense of the real excitement.

“I think actually you can miss the real pull of the sport,” Murphy says. “The drama, the battle between two players on the stage – there’s nowhere to hide, there’s no defence in darts. It’s all-out attack and you have to be better than them.

“You can miss out on so much if you just focus on the fun element of it, which is – of course – one of the massive reasons why it has become so popular. It is a difficult balancing act. I just think the coverage of the actual sport itself should be about the sport itself.”

Example in chief, as it has been since the first day of 2018, is that of Rob Cross. It is a fairy-tale that did genuinely grip a nation. Social media was ablaze with unlikely armchair pundits – Stephen Fry, Toni Kroos, Richard Osman and many more – as the one-time electrician brought down the greatest player of all time.

In a sense, though, it is this that irritates Murphy. It is not that, a year on, Cross is still the one-time electrician, for that remarkable narrative is the ultimate human story. Rather, it is that for many, those who witnessed Cross dismantle Taylor in his finest hour will have read nothing of him since.

“Where I think the problem lies – and this is not a PDC issue because they do everything they can – is in extending that coverage into the Premier League,” Murphy explains. The round-robin tournament of the world’s best begins less than a month after the final throw of the World Championship. The line-up is even announced after the final. Yet, maintaining mainstream written interest beyond the iconic Alexandra Palace stage has remained a challenge.

“It’s almost like the majority of people who know about Rob Cross – not people involved in darts, but your average sports fan – won’t hear about him again until the next World Championship,” Murphy sighs.

It is a minor gripe, and one that will surely begin to disappear as the sport continues its exponential rise. When December does arrive, a repeat of last year’s drama would certainly help.

Featured photograph/Marco Verch/Flickr