As Phil Taylor bows out, Darts has come a long way

Sport as entertainment in a nutshell...

BY John Duggan 19:20 Thursday 14 December 2017, 19:20 14 Dec 2017

When you are young, and obsessed about sport, you are into everything. Everything.

In the late 1980s, I would watch the BBC's 'A Question of Sport' religiously. I would buy the Guinness Book of Records and scour the sports section. I remember buying this magazine called 'Winners - The Champions of Sport', which had fact files on stars in various disciplines.

I had a 1986 World Cup sticker album. Panini sticker books were filled, Panini '89 was completed. Football magazines 'Shoot' and 'Match' were bought on a weekly basis, and panic would ensue if there was a delay in their delivery to the newsagent. I would construct a league table with tabs which 'Shoot' provided. I knew who Ed Moses was. I knew who Hugo Sanchez was. I knew who Larry Tompkins was. I knew who Hana Mandlikova was. I knew who Richard Gough was.

So, against this background, a dart board behind my door was an inevitability. 

The bedroom door resembled something that the Ant Hill Mob in the kids TV show Wacky Races would have taken their Tommy Guns to. It was riddled with holes, a result of my sheer lack of any hand to eye co-ordination.

The dartboard was a 'Winmau', the Darts were 'Crafty Cockneys' - the brand of the undisputed champion of the time, Eric Bristow. Darts was on the BBC, and five time world champion Bristow was the king, joined by characters such as Jocky Wilson, Bob Anderson, and 'Gentleman' John Lowe.

Image: Sid Waddell, darts commentator interviews Eric Bristow. ©INPHO/Allsport

Of course they were all great players, but it was a sport that was a bit kitsch, complemented by Jim Bowen and Bullseye on ITV, the refuge of speedboats, caravans, 'a bit of bully' and those soothing words of commentator Tony Green to 'take your time'.

The sport didn't get much exposure beyond the World Championship. And, yes, it is a sport. Try it. It's bloody difficult, even if you don't have to change your shoes.  

To me, the zenith of Darts on the BBC was not a final, but the first ever nine dart finish at a World Championship, which Paul Lim produced in 1990. Green gave one of the great sports commentaries. 

"Yes. Yes. Double 12!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It's there!," he called.

"Paul Lim, a nine dart finish, fifty-two thousand pound!"    

Darts needed to evolve, as football did, as golf did, and top players Phil Taylor, Dennis Priestley and promoter Barry Hearn understood that. Hearn was a very successful Snooker and Boxing promoter before working on TV deals when the top players split from the British Darts Organisation and formed what would become the Professional Darts Corporation.

The top players couldn't rely on terrestrial operators for promotion and understood that there was the opportunity to enhance the reach of the sport and make it more lucrative for everyone. SKY Sports was growing during the 1990s, and once proven winner Hearn became Chairman in 2001, the sport has never looked back.

The quality of the sport has increased greatly, with averages improving from the high 80s to the 110s. The 'arrows' are better, the tour is better, the exposure is better, the leadership is better. World champion Michael Van Gerwen of the Netherlands is a popular scoring machine.

The secret sauce of Darts is the marketing, the ability for anyone, of any class, to say to themselves, "I would like to go to the World Darts, because I like the sport, the venue looks like a German Beer Hall with sport and singing and I get to dress up in a ridiculous costume, act the eejit and blend in".

Every player at the 2017/8 World Darts Championship has a nickname, every player has a theme tune. Think about that. If I was called John 'The Gambler' Duggan and strutted to brilliant music and cheering crowds, even I would be cool. Everyone is cool.

People can identify with the players, who are not wrapped in cotton wool behind a barrier, unlike remote franchise footballers. The fans can imagine the players living in their neighbourhood and coming to Ireland for exhibitions, which they do. I have never been to the Alexandra Palace, but I want to go. It's a gold card for memories. 

As I write this piece, Limerick's Willie O'Connor is playing his first round match at the World Championship. Taylor has won 16 world titles, 14 with the PDC after his first couple with the BDO. His legacy and those who were brave enough to make the leap a quarter of a century ago are healthy viewing figures, a festive accompaniment on television to Christmas culture, and a prize fund to the winner on New Year's Day of £400,000.

So Taylor, Hearn and the late 'voice of the sport' Sid Waddell deserve huge credit. They have future-proofed their sport. 

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