You could be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t anything wrong. Record crowd numbers, ever-increasing prize money, and now a gleaming new channel – Sky Sports Darts. But while Barry Hearn waxes lyrical about another of his “rags to riches” stories, it only takes a light scratching of the surface to reveal that all is not well.
The crowd is the life source of every sport. Forget television rights, sponsorship deals, the standard of the players, without the fan base a sport would cease to exist. When looking at the crowd so far from this year’s World Championship at Alexandra Palace you don’t see the legion of darts fans making the annual pilgrimage to the year’s highlight event anymore. They have been replaced largely by clusters of drunkards.
These drunkards are segregated into two groups – the “stands” and the “tables” – and are locked in battle for four hours or more where they trade insults about their assumed economic backgrounds. Every 20 minutes or so, those differences are put aside so they can bellow a tedious chorus of: “Stand up if you love the darts!” – somewhat surprising considering it doesn’t appear they have actually watched any darts since their arrival.
Granted, this is not a new scenario. The crowd’s morph into something more resemblant of a mob has been apparent from the birth of the Premier League almost 10 years ago – but the last two or three have seen it get much worse. The idea of any order and respect is long gone. Mark Webster’s first round match with Ron Meulenkamp ended in farce with referee Russ Bray powerless to control an afternoon attendance baying for blood as the pair missed an array of doubles – in fact his calls for quiet just made things worse.
And now it also looks like Sky, longtime supporters of this “atmosphere” have had enough, either that or they are simply embarrassed. Constantly throughout the tournament they have been muting the crowd, whenever they show signs of unrest. My amazement at Sky’s decision stems from their ties with the PDC. Rod Harrington, a commentator and analyst is a PDC representative – it’s akin to having Sepp Blatter commentate on the World Cup! Sky and the PDC have always been a necessity to each other, hence the criticism is sparse.
Worse than the allowance of unruly “supporters” however is the alienation of the true darts fan. Many are no longer willing to part with their hard-earned cash to sit in these pits. It was only in 2011 when a man was convicted for assault due to his behaviour at a Premier League night. In the same season Adrian Lewis was subject to physical abuse, when members of a Scottish crowd threw coins at him while he was at the oche. Phil Taylor was also spat on during his walk-on, at the same Glaswegian venue two years later. Not to mention the majority of Premier League evenings finish up with grown men hurling full pints at one another. Despite being a darts fanatic I have no desire to set foot in these arenas, this is not the sport I grew to love.
A reversal in the PDC’s direction is unlikely, I would argue impossible if it continues in its current form. The only prospect of change would be the bubble bursting, something darts has suffered previously with devastating consequences. However, appealing to a demographic who come to darts event to not watch darts is dangerous. When the new fad ultimately comes along and these “fans” up sticks to somewhere else, the PDC will be left with swathes of empty seats the forgotten fans will not fill. This already looks to be happening at the World Grand Prix, with the CityWest Hotel in Dublin looking concerningly empty at times, particularly for the final.
On a more positive outlook, the sport’s expansion across Europe is encouraging, with Germany especially attracting huge numbers who seem to have a more loyal passion for the game. One wonders why the Netherlands – once a hotbed for tournaments – is now sparingly used, with them enjoying as much success as they ever have.
But overall I fail to see anything than a bleak long-term future. Hearn, for all his business acumen, has created an unstable monster. There may be more money in the game than ever before but at what cost? As Freddie Wilde wrote about cricket, the fans are the sellsword, and those in charge should ignore them at their peril. The same can be applied to darts. Hearn labeled me and others pretentious for raising the issues and injustices within the game. I would advise him to remember this: when darts hits the next inevitable wane, it won’t be us who deserts it.
Photo used from TungstenTales