At the beginning of June, the sport of darts grew immeasurably. The rise in prize money at the PDC World Championship – now at £2.5 million – is, indeed, quantifiable. The sheer value, though, of the increase of participants – from 72 to 96 – is far more significant. It is a moment, perhaps, that will put pay to the remaining stigma that exists around a sport with its doubters still transfixed on a bygone era.
The importance of the 24 additional places available to the tour’s plethora of professionals is not so much rooted in its quantity, but in its diversity. If darts was once viewed as a pub game played by middle-aged British beer-bellies, December’s Alexandra Palace showpiece event will open eyes across the sporting spectrum. There are places reserved for the winners of qualifying events in India, Africa, South America, Japan, China, Canada and many more. At least two spaces will be awarded to women – a monumental watershed for a sport that has always taught inclusivity.
As PDC chief executive Matt Porter explains, the Professional Darts Corporation has never had a women’s tour, but nor has it had a men’s tour. Accessibility has long been the PDC buzzword – a knowledge that three darts and a board are the extent of the running costs facing prospective throwers, a knowledge also that opening the game to all can only further raise the bar.
Deta Hedman became the first woman to beat a man in a televised major when she defeated Aaron Turner in 2005. However, that victory did not provide the anticipated springboard that – more than a decade on – it may well have done.
“It’s completely open,” Porter says of the circuit. “We don’t have any female tour card holders at the moment but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have. We have had women competing on our Challenge Tour and the development tours. We’re completely inclusive – it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female.
“Having a top female player would be a real step forward. It will come in time, there’s no doubt about that. There are women out there who play to an excellent standard. It’s difficult though – if you want to be a full-time player then you have to make a lot of sacrifices and that doesn’t suit everybody. It doesn’t necessarily suit everybody to give up what they’re doing and do what Rob Cross has done and go professional. But there will be women out there who can break the mould.”
Breaking the mould, as Porter puts it, is what the PDC has done for more than a decade. Earlier this year, the decision was made to end an association with walk-on girls, a reminder of a former era that had proven troublesome to some sceptics. The announcement provoked a reaction on both sides, with many suggesting that the ruling had prevented the women from working. For the PDC, however, it was a different matter.
“We were surprised by the hysteria that went with it,” Porter admits. “I think people got a bit carried away. Ultimately, it was a small part of the overall show and, to be honest, nobody’s mentioning it anymore. The press blew it out of proportion. It was nothing to do with feminism.
“It was just that we felt that the event had evolved, and it wasn’t as necessary as it was before. Our broadcast partners put that to us and we respected that opinion. We certainly wouldn’t say it’s damaged the sales and we haven’t seen that in viewing figures or ticket sales. I think it was a storm in a teacup for a week or so that kept everybody talking about darts.”
In many ways, it has become difficult for the average sports fan to avoid the sight of Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson, such is the sport’s television stronghold. Only Premier League football carries a larger annual audience on Sky Sports than the PDC’s annual circuit. More than 1.4 million people took in the 2018 World Championship final between Rob Cross and Phil Taylor. It was, from the perspective of a sport still looking to increase its global appeal, the perfect match-up.
“Phil was an iconic figure in darts,” Porter says. “He was the man who, even if you didn’t like darts or didn’t know about darts, you knew who Phil Taylor was. That was so important to us.”
That Taylor’s retirement has done little to quash the sport’s titanic rise is testament both to the Taylor era and to those who have taken the mantle from the record-breaking flagbearer.
“The great thing that Phil did was help darts grow to a level where other people could aspire to be him or beat him so that the sport could stand on its own two feet,” Porter explains. “Had Phil Taylor retired ten years ago, it might be a different conversation.
“Because of the trail that Phil blazed, the sport is where it is now. His standard is now being carried on by the likes of Michael van Gerwen, Rob Cross, Gary Anderson and Raymond van Barneveld and all the other top stars that are coming through now and performing consistently at that level.”
If Taylor is the man responsible for so much of the sport’s modern landscape, a 16-time world champion whose longevity and dominance gave darts a flagship name on which to build, Cross is all that the PDC wishes to promote – both to its supporters and its next generation of players.
A qualified and full-time electrician until little more than two years ago, he now stands as the champion of the world. If a fairytale to the outside world, to Porter, his rapid rise is a tip of the hat to the infrastructure now in place to ensure that darts post-Taylor continues to produce a quality product.
“The pathway that now exists is critical,” he says of the Challenge Tour, the second-tier circuit for those without a tour card, all based on the success of golf’s equivalent setup.
“The fact that you can now go from picking up a dart in your garage or bedroom as a youngster to being a world champion on the PDC circuit is massive for us because it means that we can give people genuine career opportunities. We can give them the opportunity to develop themselves as players or aspiring professionals. The key to darts as a sport is its inclusiveness. It’s not like some sports where you have to have a lot of space or equipment or expensive memberships or lessons. Darts is affordable and achievable for people to participate in, whatever their background.
“[Rob] Cross was a real rags-to-riches story in the sense that he gave up his career which he had trained for as an electrician to pursue his dream of becoming a professional darts player. He was taking a chance – he has a family to look after. He can’t afford to not have an income. He had a good job as an electrician, but he knew he had a talent and he wanted that opportunity to show the world what he could do. He has nerves of steel, a huge amount of ability to match it and he’s a lovely fella so it’s a great story.”
The culmination in the first chapter of Cross’ unlikely tale came in victory over Taylor, with the eyes of the world watching. Michael Owen, Toni Kroos, Stephen Fry – all three tweeted their amazement as darts and the World Championship transcended its basic premise. For Porter, the late-December bonanza of sport, entertainment, fancy dress and alcohol has become part of the nation’s mental calendar. Alexandra Palace has become a celebrity jaunt in recent years, with sportspeople, actors and even royalty taking in the unique atmosphere.
“The event has become iconic now,” he says with a satisfied pride. “Not only in the UK but around the world. It’s synonymous with Christmas, it’s synonymous with London, it’s synonymous with what people do at home at that time of year – they sit on the sofa, they put their feet up with a turkey and want to watch the darts. It beats Christmas specials of things people have seen fifty times.
“Why wouldn’t you want to watch it? It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s a bit like the Rob Cross story. Someone could be sitting at home, thinking: ‘I’m quite good. I’d like to give this a go.’ They have a realistic chance of achieving something. They don’t have to have been in an academy since they were eight or been to the right school. I think it just appeals across the levels.
“We just keep delivering a world class product. We challenge anybody who has inaccurate preconceptions about the sport to come and watch it. They should leave their snobbery and misconceptions at the door and come and enjoy it for an evening. Or maybe they could try and play it. If they think it’s easy to play or a mess-around joke in the pub then they should give it a go.
“If Prince Harry can come and enjoy it, then I’m sure somebody who has previously discounted it as a serious event can also do so.”
Such is the money in the sport, the very notion of darts as anything other than a professional contest is an antiquated theory based on a cocktail of snobbery and misplaced scepticism.
The ranking system – the PDC Order of Merit – is based entirely on player earnings during a two-year cycle. Van Gerwen, the world’s best player and undisputed pacesetter, has earned £1.8 million in event prize money alone in that timeframe, with a plethora of sponsorship deals to boot. All of the world’s current top 40 players have earned more than £100,000 since midway through 2016.
It is a statistic that vindicates all that Porter and PDC chairman Barry Hearn have put in place. They are figures that continue to evoke genuine shock. However, the reality of the a global circuit, a powerful alliance with a wealthy rights holder and an insatiable scrum for tickets to each tournament makes for a robust money-making machine. Porter’s tenure as chief executive has seen the sport’s annual prize money budget double from £3 million to £6 million. Not only does it highlight the strength in depth of an ever-growing sport, it also proves the game’s potential permanence.
“I think we’ve gone through that phase now of darts potentially just being a craze,” Porter says. “The Premier League has been going for twelve years, the World Championship has grown to the level that it has. I think, had there been a real danger of the popularity waning, it would have happened five or six years ago.
“We’re not going to be complacent and we’ll look at some of our venues to think about changing them around to keep things fresh. If you have the same old product at the same old venue year-in-year-out, people get tired of it. We have to ensure that the product always evolves to keep it interesting to the public and the viewers.”
Porter, who in a previous guise was the youngest chief executive in Football League history during a stint at Leyton Orient, cannot help but dream of taking the PDC to some of sport’s most iconic venues. Just last month at the German Darts Masters, 20,210 fans flocked to the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, setting a new world record for a darting attendance. It was a record that had stood for more than 70 years, proving once again the PDC’s capacity for further growth, as well as serving as a reminder of the game’s history. For all the razzmatazz of the PDC riches, the years of Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson and Bobby George were some of the greatest that the sport has seen.
“It would be nice to do something at somewhere like Madison Square Garden in New York,” Porter says. “It would be nice to expand in Las Vegas for a bigger arena – we’ve done big arenas in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia.
“It would be nice to move into Asia. Over time, we will do but we do have to do it at the right pace and when the market is telling you to. You don’t go to a territory to try to build something up. You have to go there at the right time if it’s a big event.
“We go to the Rotterdam Ahoy and sell it out in ten minutes. Had we gone there six years ago, we might not have done that and it wouldn’t have grown as organically as it is doing now. It’s all about timing.”
If Porter speaks like a businessman, it is only because he is exactly that, his eyes focused steadfast on what happens next.
“Prize money is a result of the sport’s success,” he explains to me as talk turns to a chief executive’s constitution of success. “TV sales, ticket sales, viewing figures, sponsorship interest – they’re our benchmarks.”
For those who have talked of darts as a potential Olympic event, Porter has bad news. Quite simply, he says, it has never been on the radar. International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership requires a sport to have a single recognised governing body. Darts, with its complex and fragmented divide between the PDC and the British Darts Organisation (BDO), does not meet the criteria. As far as Porter is concerned, however, this is no great tragedy.
“It’s never been something that we have viewed as a target,” he confesses. “We don’t think it is something that would hugely benefit the game. To be brutally honest from an Olympic perspective, an Olympic gold medal should be the pinnacle of that sport. But we have seen with some sports that already have majors or world championships, that a gold medal isn’t necessarily seen as the pinnacle that it should be viewed as.
“If you asked a golfer if they’d rather win Olympic gold or the Masters, they’d probably say the Masters. And we believe the World Championship is the pinnacle of PDC aspiration. You might get a different answer from a player – they would love to represent their country. But it is not something that is being discussed, nor is it something that has any work going into it at the moment.”
With financial incentives continuing to increase throughout the PDC, I ask Porter if there is a risk of losing the personalities from a group of players fully focused on the task at hand. The spectrum has altered since Bob Anderson’s arrival on the Circus Tavern stage aboard a horse. The excitement of the walk-ons has remained, with characters encouraged to show off their individual eccentricity. From a marketing standpoint – both for player and governing body, the spectacle is still paramount amongst the uber-professionalism of the modern ranks.
For Porter, the balance is clear. “Darts isn’t just there to shoot 100 averages,” he explains. “It’s there to put on a show for the crowd and the players understand that. It’s why they all have their own designed shirts and walk-on songs, it’s why they interact with their fans on Twitter.
“That, again, is the evolution of the profession. When I first started, players were going on stage in a polo shirt they had bought from JD Sport. They stuck a sticker of their mate’s firm on it as a sponsor. That was where the sport was going at the time, which was fine.
“But it has evolved now – there are international companies out there sponsoring world-class players.” It is a trend that reflects the game’s wider reignition. Huge once upon a time and then followed by a lull, the PDC has found its zenith.
Featured photograph: PDC