CYNICS still dismiss it as merely a pub game, but darts is a sport very much on the up and its top player can see no sign of it hitting the ceiling.
Gary Anderson is £300,000 better off today than he was a week ago, following his victory over Adrian Lewis in the Professional Darts Corporation’s world final.
That is an impressive sum and was made possible by the remarkable boom in darts’ popularity over recent years. Once dogged by a working class, booze and fags image, the “arrers” is now a hot ticket.
The PDC championships at Alexandra Palace attracted full houses every night, with a total of 66,000 fans watching the action. Stephen Fry is a darts addict, stars from the worlds of sport and showbiz flock to see Anderson and his rivals on stage and even royals have been spotted in darts audiences.
Next month the roadshow will roll into Leeds, when the First Direct Arena stages the opening night of the Premier League, a weekly tournament featuring darts’ 10 top players.
“The venue will be packed, as they all are,” Anderson predicted to The Yorkshire Post. “If it holds 3,000 it is packed and if it holds 14,000 it is packed. Leeds is a great venue and it is fantastic to have so many people turning out on a Thursday night.”
It will be the third successive year the event, which began in small halls and now sells out arenas more used to hosting the world’s leading music acts, has visited the city.
Organisers were so impressed with 2014’s staging they opted to begin the following season’s competition at the Arena and will repeat that next month.
It is appropriate a competition designed for TV, all Premier League matches are broadcast live on Sky Sports, should kick-off in Leeds, which is known as the birthplace of televised darts.
That dates back to the 1970s, when darts was one of the events featured in ITV’s Indoor League, presented from the Irish Centre on York Road by Fred Trueman and the brainchild of Pudsey-based Sid Waddell. Famous as the voice of darts, Waddell died four years ago and the PDC’s world trophy is now named in his honour.
Next month’s Premier League opener, which clashes with Leeds Rhinos’ first Super League fixture at home to Warrington Wolves – also on Sky – will be a far cry from the days when Waddell first exposed the slingers of arrows to armchair viewers’ attention. The sport grew rapidly in the 1970s and 80s before seemingly hitting a wall.
A row between top players and the administrators led to a split and although – unlike rugby league which was founded in similar circumstances – the rules remained unchanged, there are now two governing bodies, the PDC and BDO, whose own world championship concludes tomorrow.
At first the PDC, whose founders included Mexborough’s Dennis Priestley, literally had to drag spectators off the street. But then boxing promoter Barry Hearn got involved and he added glamour and glitz to the game. As the sport’s popularity has increased, so has the money involved and the standard has rocketed. Anderson’s double-12 to beat Lewis in last weekend’s final was the 38,317th dart thrown in the tournament. The finale included the most maximum 180 scores ever seen in a professional match and there were 620, another record, in the tournament as a whole. Anderson hit a 170, the maximum checkout, in the final and achieved a perfect nine dart leg during his semi-final conquering of Jelle Klaason, which earned him a £15,000 bonus. His success will send Anderson into the Premier League, which he also won last year, in good heart. Reflecting on retaining his title, the 45-year-old said: “It was a great tournament. We say it every year and every year it seems to get better and better.
“Michael van Gerwen going out to Barney [Raymond van Barneveld] and Jelle beating Phil Taylor opened it right up and then anyone could win it. It is getting that big now and it is only going to get bigger. The PDC has a youth tour now and a challenger tour and the pro tour.
“There’s a lot of players ready to jump on the ladder and challenge us old ones. All the youngsters coming through want to play Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis and Gary Anderson and they are not scared.”
Players like Anderson can now make a good living out of darts, which is attracting more youngsters to the sport. But, he insisted, it is tough graft and the “old timers” may soon be pushed aside.
“It is four months, on the road constantly,” Anderson said of the Premier League. “We get on well and we have a good laugh, but it is hard work. For me, 50 would be a good time to pack in, I think.
“William Hill’s prize money for the worlds will be up to £500,000 then and it would be nice to finish with that, but we will see.”