From the pub to the palace: How darts reinvented itself
(CNN) – Men in glitzy shirts and outrageous hairstyles walk down the red carpet alongside a cheerleader while 2,500 people sing “stand up if you love the darts.”
These are not your groomed and glamorous stars like David Beckham — these are men of the people.
Welcome to the world of darts.
A world where men like Peter Wright, who sports a multi-colored mohawk with a snake painted on the side of his head — and parades around in shirts which would be more at home at a 1970s psychedelic disco is hero worshiped.
Where men with paunches, who appear to have spent more time lifting pints than weights, thrill millions — including Prince Harry.
Once played by as many as 10 million Britons in pubs each year, darts has long since escaped the stereotype of a working class leisure pursuit.
It’s been rebranded, revamped and then some. And what a success the marketing men have had.
The World Championships, which concluded in style on New Year’s Day at London’s Alexandra Palace, was broadcast live across the globe as far as Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Far East.
As well as its larger than life sporting characters, what television loves most about darts is the atmosphere a couple of thousand men and women — many in fancy dress and imbibing liberal amounts of alcohol — generate at the “Pally.”
“It’s quickfire and entertaining — you get a result on the night and you don’t have to wait around for five days or so, Matthew Porter, chief executive of the Professional Darts Corporation, told CNN.
“Then there’s the crowd aspect. It’s non-partisan, it’s not like football where people have teams. They have their favorite players but it’s different atmosphere.
“The social element is hugely important, ,” added Porter.
“People can go out in fancy dress, they can be on television and that all serves to make it an enjoyable night out. They’re not just going to a sporting event.
The argument over whether darts is really a sport has seemingly become redundant, with Clive Woodward, a leading sports scientist and coach, who has worked as Sporting Director of Team GB and the England rugby team, arguing it should be in the Olympics.
With 72 players from 20 different countries taking part, the reach of the sport has grown immeasurably since the inception of the World Darts Council in 1992, which is today known as the PDC.
The move, which came after a number of top players voiced their concern at the lack of progress being made by the game under the auspices of the British Darts Organization.
The split brought about a new era with the creation of the PDC, now led by sports promoter Barry Hearn, who helped to revolutionize the game by giving it a complete facelift.
England’s answer to American promoter Don King, Hearn, who also owns a lower division English football club, has also helped revamp snooker as well working as a boxing supremo.
Darts is now a lucrative business with players competing in front of packed arenas with a total prize fund of $8 million on offer throughout the year.
The game’s origins remain a mystery.
“Javelins, crossbow bolts and archery have all been considered,” according to darts historian Patrick Chaplin, known as ‘Dr Darts’, the author of eight books on the sport.
Historically England has always excelled at archery, notably at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 when despite being outnumbered by French soldiers, Welsh and English archers overwhelmed the enemy with a storm of arrows.
“Of these the most likely scenario is that the game has its roots in archery,” added Chaplin. “Glance back to the earliest type of dartboards and you will see that these were concentric targets — miniature forms of the archery target.
“Moreover, darts is most commonly known as ‘arrows.’ Some would say that these two points alone are sufficient to confirm our sports’ heritage.”
While darts was always a pastime enjoyed in pubs across Britain in the 1930s, it was not until the BDO was established in 1973 that it became a professional sport.
By January 1979 over eight million people tuned in to watch John Lowe win the Embassy World Professional Darts Championship on the BBC.
While TV coverage was scaled back in the 1980s, the advent of satellite television brought about new opportunities for the game with both parties enjoying huge success.
Porter is now targeting the U.S. and Asia.
“All the hard work of the past 10 years or so has come to fruition and we’re now trying to continue our global expansion.
“We started a world series last year with Dubai and Australia and we’re now trying to expand in North American and Asia,” said the PDC chief executive.
“America is a tough nut to crack because it’s such a vast market but we’ve got TV coverage over there.
“We don’t have an elite U.S. player and they like to watch their own.”
Porter is equally keen to draw in new fans.
“To any new fans who want to come, I’ll give them my personal guarantee that I’ll refund their money if they don’t enjoy it.
“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t enjoyed an evening at the darts.”