From Pub Pastime to the World: Great Expectations from Darts

By Cotton, Steven | International Herald Tribune, December 14, 2012 | Go to article overview

From Pub Pastime to the World: Great Expectations from Darts


Cotton, Steven, International Herald Tribune


A game once considered a pub pastime has become a major industry in Europe. Over the holiday season, Premier League soccer is the only sport that will attract more British television viewers than the World Dart Championships.

The former world champion made his way to the stage, wielding a light saber and flanked by Princess Leia and a posse of Stormtroopers, while the sellout crowd, merry on Christmas cheer and liters of beer, roared in approval.

Over the public address system, "The Imperial March" -- Darth Vader's theme -- played at ear-shattering volume. The fans, many dressed as Mr. Incredible, pirates, animals or the Jamaican bobsledders from the film "Cool Runnings," had scrawled messages on placards, hoping the television cameras would spot them.

These scenes played out at world championship sporting events in recent years. Specifically, the World Darts Championship.

A game once considered a pub pastime has become a major industry in Europe. Over the holiday season, Premier League soccer is the only sport that will attract more television viewers in Britain than the Professional Darts Corporation's championship, the higher- quality and better-attended of darts' two world championships.

The World Darts Championship begins Friday in London, with 72 players from 21 nations competing for $1.6 million in prize money. The winner of the final on Jan. 1 will take home $321,000, crowned as the first world champion of 2013 in any sport.

About 40,000 fans are expected to watch the action in a hall that, with its long tables and endless pitchers of beer, resembles something from Oktoberfest -- and they may even be joined by royalty. Prince Harry attended the semifinal two years ago, and Zara Phillips, Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter and an Olympic equestrian medalist, was in the crowd for the most recent final.

A sport that once was, and to a large extent still is, synonymous with the working classes has garnered a much wider social appeal in recent years. Even the writer, broadcaster, actor and Cambridge graduate Stephen Fry has been a co-commentator on Sky Sports' coverage of the Premier League, the 15-date darts equivalent of an arena rock tour that has progressed from leisure centers to sellout nights at the 10,000-capacity O2 Arena in less than a decade.

As a result of the sport's popularity, orchestrated by the promoter Barry Hearn, the players -- who go by nicknames like the Power, the Wizard, Jaws, the Dutch Destroyer and the Bronzed Adonis - - now compete for an overall annual prize pool of $8 million.

Aside from the fast-paced action and a strong emphasis on providing fans with an experience to remember, one of the key reasons for darts' mainstream resurgence in Britain after a sharp dip in popularity from its 1980s heyday was Sid Waddell, who, like Fry, was a Cambridge graduate.

Waddell was a commentator with a thick Newcastle accent and a style so irreverent and humorous that he became a bigger star than most of the players. When the Londoner Eric Bristow won the fourth of his five world titles, Waddell ad-libbed: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow's only 27."

Waddell, the voice of the Christmas holidays to generations of sports-mad Brits, died of cancer Aug. 11, the day after his 72nd birthday. The trophy at this year's tournament will be named in his honor.

The game seems poised for continued growth, with Phil Taylor, a 52-year-old former factory worker who has earned more than $8 million in prize money, among a group of elite players capable of earning about $800,000 per year, not including endorsements and exhibitions. …

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