Two years ago I wrote an article on why I considered the Professional Darts Corporation’s decision to sell its events as a party rather than a sport was a gamble. Safe to say, the piece attracted a lot of attention – around 10,000 reads, about 70 percent of the total views this blog has garnered in two and a half years.
The response was mixed, although it was more positive than not, and as it’s still applicable, the post continues to receive comments today – especially at World Championship time. With a lot of water under the bridge, now is the appropriate time to revisit it. Much I continue to believe, although a few comments were admittedly slightly naïve.
In suggesting the PDC has become slaves to a monster, I dare say the past 24 months have vindicated that. Crowds have worsened, so much so that we now hear as many football chants as darts ones, while it sometimes feels as if few would notice if the players just packed up and walked off, given the backdrop behind the players is often a sea of backs instead of faces.
There’s nothing that can be done about this now. Indeed, referees seem to realise the once customary “thank you” is as useful as a Kevin Painter lesson in bottle. That’s the route they’ve gone down and it’s fair to say we’re not near the tipping point yet. A night at the darts remains mighty appealing, even if a night watching the darts doesn’t. With more – albeit anecdotal – evidence that I’ve had from people who say they no longer attend PDC events because of the crowd situation, it’s inevitable that things will keep moving in this direction.
Sadly the PDC revels in drunken tomfoolery. During Wednesday afternoon’s second-round session, the corporation’s official Twitter page shared a GIF of somebody taking a “PINT TO THE FACE!!!” – along with that god-awful crying with laughter emoji –before later deleting it after copious criticism. I cannot think of any other sport that not only allows its spectators to behave like idiots, but actively endorses it.
Any attempts to exercise crowd control are fruitless – they will do what they like when they like and make a lot of noise while doing it. And, as far as the PDC’s finances are concerned, that’s fine for now. But there are undeniably sustainability questions – surrounding having a darts crowd that isn’t there to watch darts – that will become pertinent eventually, although it’s hard to say when. What could change things is a serious kick-off at a UK event that makes headlines outside darts – the likelihood of that seems about as improbable but not impossible as it has ever been.
All of this gloom isn’t to say darts hasn’t made some huge strides, and my comment that the World Championships should have stayed at the Circus Tavern was a mistake borne out of pernicious nostalgia. It was a special place (sort of) and it’s a shame it’s not used for anything, but looking back, moving was the correct decision.
Purfleet’s finest was never the Crucible or a second Lakeside. Ultimately, the Circus was merely a venue that happened to stage darts’ most iconic match as its last World Championship salvo. With darts bidding for the big time, it wasn’t worth saving. The deteriorating atmosphere over the past decade hasn’t been caused by the change in arena, but by the PDC’s refusal to firmly stamp out the nonsense behaviour when it started.
Painting the PDC a “bleak long-term future” was clumsy. There’s plenty of reason to believe, with the growing European market at least, that further expansion is likely and forthcoming. Shipping a big major, ideally the World Grand Prix over to the Netherlands or Germany seems a logical step with the Citywest Hotel in Dublin having the most trouble filling the hall up of late.
That pretty much falls in line with what I said at the time, although it’s slightly bizarre that aside from now hosting a Premier League night, the Dutch are still being ignored. Encouragingly, folk out there and across the continent – while in for a good time – appear to care about what’s happening on the board too.
I still reckon the PDC will have long-term problems keeping its product fresh in the UK, but with other countries chomping at the bit, the organisation should stay in rude health providing it harnesses that potential. Finding a marketable replacement for Phil Taylor will be the bigger challenge.
Nobody has the lure of the Power, not even Michael van Gerwen. Taylor’s world finals against van Gerwen and Anderson in 2013 and 2015 respectively brought in around 1.2 million viewers apiece. Contrast that to the 668,000 who tuned in for van Gerwen versus Peter Wright in 2014, and the 908,000 who switched on for Gary Anderson’s title retention against Adrian Lewis last year. If nothing else, it’s a warning signal, as was the PDC’s foray onto the BBC back in September – despite getting the showpiece Taylor-van Gerwen final, fewer than one million watched it.
So, all in all, I’d like to think I’ve largely been proven right, despite being a tad heavy-handed in certain areas. The PDC has certainly created a monster, but for now, it’s a stable one, and they should be able to keep it so for a while yet. For real fans, who enjoyed going to the darts to watch the darts – such a novel concept – the long-term future is indeed bleak. Darts sold itself to reach new heights, and Barry Hearn concluded neglecting his core, dedicated audience in favour of a wild, carefree gang was for the greater good. Time will tell whether he’s right.