The past couple of weeks have seen the William Hill World Darts Championship take place at London’s Alexandra Palace. The Championships have a prize pot of £1.25 million, which places it among the most lucrative events on the British sporting calendar, above the likes of the Grand National, Rugby’s Aviva Premiership and Cricket’s LV County Championship. For a sport that consists of throwing darts at a board from 10 feet, that seems ludicrous.
When most people imagine dart players they imagine beer-drinking, overweight middle-aged men and darts professionals, with the exception of a few spotty, skinny European teenagers who look as if they haven’t seen the sun in years, are no different. 29 year old Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis, seeded 3rd in the ongoing World Championships, weighs almost 20 stone and in 2004 during a PDC/BDO (the two professional darts organisations) unification title match between Phil Taylor and Andy Fordham the later, weighing over 30 stone at the time, was forced to withdraw early in the game due to dehydration caused by his massive bulk. Surely a game in which these men (and on occasion women, PDC events being open to both sexes, although there is a separate PDC women’s championship) compete cannot be considered a sport? Or can those who play it be considered athletes?
Darts is obviously not a game with the athletic rigour of football, rugby or even golf, but in terms of skill it is not something to be sniffed at. Next time you’re in a college bar or pub with a dartboard, step up to the oche (the spot from which the darts are thrown) and have a throw. If you can even hit the board on your first try you can consider yourself something of a natural talent. Even to get to the standard required to complete a game of darts takes some practice. The rules of darts are also fairly complex. Each player starts on 501 points and the players take it in turns to throw 3 darts each, subtracting scores gained by hitting segments of the dart board (1-20 plus the bullseye), with the first player to reach zero, by scoring 501 points exactly, winning. Where darts gets tricky however, is with the double and triple score areas on each segment. To win a leg (a single game of darts – with 3 legs constituting a set and professional games being over a variable number of sets) a player has to finish, or ‘checkout’ on a double or a triple. Each double area is around the size of a 10p piece, and each triple area the size of a 20p piece. Any darts player near the top of the professional ranks will be able to hit triples at least 50% of the time and when it comes to getting the exact score needed to ‘checkout’ players will need to be able to hit specific doubles and triples around the board, all while doing the complex sums required to work out what scores are needed in their heads unaided. So while the athletic merit of darts is dubious at best, the mental focus and nous required is immense, with players at the top level having to keep up intense levels of accuracy and concentration across games that can last for over an hour.
Watch Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis’ amazing 9 dart finish, the minimum possible, during his World Championships last 16 clash with Raymond Van Barneveld on the 30th of December, a feat which netted him a £10,000 prize from tournament sponsors William Hill
However despite the levels of focus and skill required to play darts, all of this has probably done little to convince any sceptics amongst you that the game is anything more than a ridiculous quasi-sport. The truth is you’d be right, however this ridiculousness is in fact the very lifeblood of darts and the reason why it has such a wide and varied fanbase, including intellectual luminary Stephen Fry, a self confessed darts fanatic. The ongoing Darts World Championship, running from December 18th to January 4th has so far sold out Alexandra Palace, one of London’s most prestigious venues with a capacity of almost 3000, every single night so far and to watch it on TV it is easy to see why. Whilst darts at its best can be as compelling as the most gripping tennis match, similar in its relentless back and forth and psychological moves and counter moves, the real entertainment often lies elsewhere. Darts crowds are legendary. With enormous alcohol consumption (the average darts fan drinks 5 pints a visit) and mandatory fancy dress to go along with the questionable inter match music and unorthodox entertainment, a night at the darts is as close to a bop as you’re likely to find outside the Oxford bubble, and the atmosphere they create raises darts above the snooker-esque pseud-fest it could be into compelling sporting entertainment.
This is before we even mention the players, who perhaps more than anything else embody the self-aware ridiculousness of the darts. Whilst players such as Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, 14-time world champion (which, incredibly, makes him the most successful professional British athlete in any field) and his eternal rival the Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld have built their personas on their darting prowess, many others have taken the showman route to fame. Some of darts’ most famous names are more similar to WWE wrestlers than athletes: Uncle Fester lookalike ‘Mighty’ Michael Van Gerwen; darts’ answer to Old Man Bridge, the ever (questionably) suited and booted Rod Harrington, and Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright with his infamous colour-changing Mohawk and snake tattoos on the sides of his head. The entrances are equally as ridiculous with booming music and enormous entourages rivalling anything produced by boxing’s biggest egos. Add in the excellent TV coverage by Sky Sports, aided by ‘I’m a Celebrity’ alumnus Eric Bristow’s breathless and completely over the top commentary, and you have a riotously entertaining sporting event, a highlight of the Christmas television schedule, with last year’s Grand Final being watched by over 3 million people.
Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright’s entrance before his 2014 World Championship Grand Final clash against Michael van Gerwen
To many the spectacle of professional darts and even the idea of darts as a sport is incomprehensibly ridiculous, but to deny this would be to entirely miss the point. Darts is a spectacle far more than it is a sport in any conventional sense, and once you accept it as such it is an utterly compelling and entertaining game to watch. In a nutshell, professional darts is the rest of the world’s answer to America’s WWE, entertainment masquerading as sport, even taking into account the genuine focus, skill and dare I say, athletic ability required to compete at the highest level. Professional darts is as consciously ridiculous as it is compelling and it is the combination of genuine sporting competition mixed with pantomime-like spectacle that makes it so beloved by millions across Britain and the world.