On Thursday evening, close to 4,000 supporters rose as one as the first of many renditions of ‘stand up if you love the darts’ rung out around Exeter’s Westpoint Arena, writes Gareth Davies.
Former world champion Rob Cross had just taken to the oche, along with one of darts’ rising stars in Daryl Gurney. Before the two players battled it out in the first game of round five of the Professional Darts Corporation’s Premier League, their entrances were something more akin to a championship boxing match.
Complete with introductions from master of ceremonies John McDonald, – ironically a former boxing announcer – along with instantly recognisable walk-on music, this is darts in 2020, hardly recognisable from what many consider a pub sport, that was first seen on our television screens back in the late 1970s.
Back then, darts players were stereotyped as beer drinking chain smokers which was a pretty accurate assessment, but by 1992, the top 16 players in the world, fed up with this perception and a lack of exposure, decided to break away from the British Darts Organisation to start their own competitions.
Initially, what would later become the PDC struggled when they went alone, although slowly but surely the professionalism and standard of competition means that the BDO is now suffering from a slow and painful death.
The brainchild behind the PDC’s evolution of darts is boxing promoter Barry Hearn, with the day-to-day operations overseen by chief executive Matthew Porter.
Before Thursday event, a weekly European roadshow which will culminate in a final’s night in May, at London’s 02 arena, Porter spoke exclusively to The Indy. He started off by revealing why Exeter, a small venue by comparison to others, remains on the Premier League circuit.
“The Westpoint is one of our smaller venues, but certainly one of the most atmospheric,” he said. “There isn’t much professional darts down this way and there aren’t many opportunities for fans in the South West to see PDC events on their doorstep. This a really good opportunity for fans to come along, to see the players’ and put on a real show. It is a venue with have been coming to for a long while and they do a really good job for us.”
Exeter has been a Premier League venue since 2011 with the competition as a whole now entering its 15th year. Some thought this concept would end up being nothing more than a glorified exhibition, but for Porter and the PDC, this is a competition for the ‘elite player’.
“The Premier League started off in leisure centres and town hall’s and we thought we would try it in a few arenas and it went bang,” he added. “It was on a Thursday, and before the Europa League football, so there wasn’t any live sport on a Thursday night.
“Thursday is almost the weekend, so supporters can justify the social aspect, but overall, it is a great product. It entertains people, the tickets are affordable and the fact we travel around means you don’t need to go that far to find your local night.
“This is the event that players want to be part of. It is a massive feather in their cap to be considered Premier League players. It is commercially very lucrative for a player, good for their profile and prestige, it also changes the direction of their careers, whether they do it once or 10 times.
“It’s different to the world’s because in any sport, the world championship is just that on top of the mountain. The Premier League is different, a real mark of where players are, and they have to be an elite player to be part of it. You don’t have to be an elite player to play in the world championship so there is a marked difference.”
With the UK market cornered, Porter bullishly claimed, without wanting to sound overly corny – darts is an entertainment business as well as a sport after all – that conquering the world is his goal and the PDC have already made great strides in achieving that.
“We’ve grown internationally, and we have probably got to the stage where we have enough events in the UK,” he said defiantly. “We have targeted overseas, with great growth in Holland and Germany. Our overseas series has also taken us to some far-flung places like America, Australia and across Asia.
“The challenge is turning darts from a British professional sport into a global professional sport. If you look at the effort that has gone into brand the product, and the effort of the players themselves, that has got us into this position.
“All the players have a look, an image, a colour, a walk-on song and a style. The new stars like Nathan Aspinall and Gerwyn Price are a different breed because they have never had to play darts in a pub, that is an outdated concept for players because there is enough tournament darts away from that environment.
“Above all, the mentality is different as players take darts far more seriously because there is more to be gained from darts to set themselves up for life. Players can have a long career in darts and play into their mid-50s like Phil Taylor did and Raymond van Barneveld too.
“Players look at it through different eyes and the sport is treated very differently too.”
With the PDC bandwagon staying in the West Country and moving into Minehead over this weekend for their UK Open competition, plenty more supporters will be standing up for their love of darts and who can blame them?