Professional darts is a sport that divides opinion in a different way to most others. Many argue that even the use of the word ‘sport’ is a step too far for a game that was once restricted only to dark corners of pubs; the quality of play falling at the same speed as the level of liquid in the barrels of the cellar through the night.
But the professional game has grown to a level of undeniable popularity. The 2013 PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) World Championship final between the current best players in the world, 15-time World Champion Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and ‘Mighty’ Michael van Gerwen was viewed by over 3.8million people in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany alone, with sixteen other countries including the USA, Japan and China also broadcasting it. Not bad for a pub game.
The criticisms of major PDC events are not without grounding. The age of high definition now shows every inch of the giggling physiques of these ‘athletes’ in over a thousand pixels, crowds have been known to drink over a quarter of a million pints over the course of a World Championship tournament and the peroxide blond, balloon-chested women that accompany the players as they walk to the stage at times make the whole thing feel a little seedy.
But my word is it fun to watch.
Darts refuses to take itself too seriously and as a source of entertainment, it has everything. No sport is as fast-paced and played to such fine margins, as millimetres separate glory from disaster.
The tension and pressure behind hitting a final double to win a match has proved too much for some, including the semi-final of the 2012 World Championship, where James Wade missed double 18 to win against reigning champion Adrian Lewis and eventually let a 5-1 set lead slip and lose 5-6. Nothing is certain in darts and comebacks are not only possible, but a regular feature.
The crowd is capable of such a noise that getting them on side can play a pivotal role in the outcome of the game. As a result, the inventive characters and personas generated by the players’ nicknames, walk-on music and mannerisms become an integral and fun part of the experience. You’ll find yourself aligned to a player within seconds of seeing them, and their interaction with the party atmosphere plays a key role in this.
For instance, show me a darts fan who says they can listen to ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes without at least muttering ‘Oh Mich-ael van Ger-wen’ and I’ll show you a liar.
With every good guy, there must be a bad guy to restore the balance, and it is these figures who often make the game so watchable. Whoever Phil Taylor is playing temporarily becomes my favourite player for the duration of the game and pantomime villains such as Peter Manley and Mervyn King antagonise the crowd and seem to feed off their contempt. It is very difficult to stay neutral.
Sport is always better with a bit of needle, and one need only look back to the visible use of expletives in a heated exchange of words between Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld in 2013 or the incident in 2011 where Colin ‘Jaws’ Lloyd drew blood from punching the board to see what it means to the players and the passion involved.
The skill involved often goes without proper credit and many players spend over six hours a day perfecting their throw. One would be forgiven for thinking that the area of wall above and below my board at home had been sprayed with an AK-47 rather than three 25g tungsten arrows, a clear sign that the difference between the casual player and the professional takes years of practice, talent and incredible dedication to bridge.
The game has also evolved beyond something that only your dad would play, as a new generation of superstars have burst onto the scene in recent years to challenge the supremacy of the old guard.
Three of the top six players in the world are 30 years old or under. With the promise of further young talent and the increase in prize money encouraging more youngsters to take up the sport, darts would appear to be in extremely good health.
The Premier League of Darts begins on Thursday 6 February at the Liverpool Echo arena and features a showdown between Taylor and van Gerwen. Coverage starts on Sky Sports 1 at 7pm.
So if you find yourself aching for some sporting excitement on a Thursday evening, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re content with the ‘best of the rest’ of European football in the unfancied Europa League. Stick the darts on. You won’t regret it.