Darts: A prospering sport, or just a big party?

It’s a bank holiday evening, there are thousands of cheering people bedecked in fancy dress, consuming mountains of alcohol and singing songs, aided by a blaring music system and an array of flashing lights.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s your local club on a Saturday night, but it’s actually Alexandra Palace in London, where the final of the PDC World Darts Championship, the biggest event in the darts calendar, is taking place. Scotland’s two-time defending champion Gary Anderson is up against the current World number one, Holland’s Michael Van Gerwen.

Darts has been considered to be more of a social event than a sport, with the two players emerging to their own soundtrack (The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ for van Gerwen and House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’ for Anderson) alongside a woman wearing a blue dress with a sash emblazoned with the William Hill logo, in recognition of the betting company, who are the tournament’s sponsors.

The competitors make their way to the stage where they encounter more women wearing blue skirts and waving white pom poms, the colours of William Hill. It’s not difficult to see how the game has been marketed as an entertainment show, as opposed to solely a sport.

The rise of the arrows

For those unfamiliar with the game, Darts has been professionally run by the British Darts Organisation (BDO) since 1973, before a split in the organisation in 1992 left us with the BDO and the newly-formed Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).

The latter is run by sports promoter Barry Hearn, who has also been involved in snooker, boxing and football, and he has played a considerable role in the promotion of darts via sponsorship deals with betting companies (the World Championship is currently sponsored by William Hill), and the sale of television rights to broadcasters, especially Sky Sports, which broadcasts the PDC World Championship.

This growth has seen a continual growth of viewing figures and prize money, with the 2015 World Championship final being watched by a peak audience of 1.5 million people, while the victorious Gary Anderson received a cheque for £300,000.

The spike in viewing figures has also seen an increase in glamour and showmanship, and the addition of flashing lights, walk-on music and beautiful women all playing a part in the production that is televised darts. The rise in popularity has also led to the biggest names becoming household names, such as 16-time world Champion Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, and five-time champion Raymond ‘Barney’ van Barneveld.

Contrasting opinions of the game

Its detractors say that the lack of athleticism means it cannot be called a sport, which is supplemented by the argument that a number of competitors appear to be overweight. This, in addition to the use of attractive women in skimpy clothing to accompany the players onto the stage, is probably the wrong sort of message to be sending out to impressionable young viewers.

But what sport doesn’t have negatives? Many people’s definitions of sport automatically assume that there must be a physical element, but that isn’t a mandatory requirement. Darts possesses an extreme amount of skill, with the top players practicing for hours every day, and ability for top players to average over 100 per three throws over the length of an entire match is a hugely impressive feat.

The notion that it is not a sport has been debunked by many, with Phil Taylor even being recognised by the BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year competition. ‘The Power’ was nominated for the award by a panel of experts ranging across all sports in 2010, and was subsequently voted as the runner-up by the British public.

Furthermore, is it wrong for the events to be treated by many as just a big party? Sport is about entertainment, and the people who go along to Ally Pally are always having fun, what’s wrong with that? Many will be going just to enjoy a fun night out, and many will be eager to see some top-quality darts, played by the best players on the planet.

Dutch delight once more

Back to this year’s final, and van Gerwen saw off the challenge of Anderson, sealing a 7-3 victory with a clearance of 85. As the final dart hit the bullseye, more smoke was triggered, with ‘Seven Nation Army’ getting another airing on the sound system. It is the Dutchman’s second triumph at Ally Pally, and he now holds all of the major titles, thus cementing his spot as the best player currently playing the game.

The thousands of fans inside Ally Pally signal their approval at the winner, while many others chant ‘Ohh Gary Gary’, in support of the defeated Scot. Some are waving blue foam fingers – another homage to William Hill – some are dancing along to the music and some are just enjoying their beer. The match may be over, but the party is raging on for a while yet.

A few minutes later, the two players are joined on stage by Hearn, who hands out a £160,000 cheque to Anderson, and a £350,000 one to Van Gerwen. Not inconsiderable sums of money, which perhaps highlights the growth in stature of the game, thanks in no small part to the influence of the PDC supremo.

There is still a long way to go before darts can be considered a mainstream sport, and there’s no guarantees that it ever will be. We will just have to enjoy it for what it is in the meantime, and those who have been inside Ally Pally over the last two weeks certainly have done.