Darts is now one of the most popular sports on the planet. Some people may still dismiss darts as a ‘glorified pub game’ but the sport has come a long way since those early days, evolving into a global event over the past couple of decades.
It has been helped by a number of high-profile names such as Phil Taylor, Eric Bristow and Michael Van Gerwen dominating the sport as well as providing plenty of dramatic and memorable moments on the Oche.
The Early Days
There are numerous theories regarding the sport’s roots, but its heritage is thought to be linked to archery. In today’s parlance, many still refer to the sport as ‘the arrows’ and the round target area with various point scoring possibilities suggests that the two activities are intrinsically linked. Henry VIII, a keen archer, was believed to have been given a set of ‘Biscayan darts’ by Anne Boleyn; however, the game in its current form wasn’t particularly popular until the 1900s. During the early part of the 20th century, games were restricted to pubs or being played behind closed doors and were witnessed by very few spectators barring a handful of ale-sipping regulars.
The first official event was the ‘News of the World Competition’, which took place in London towards the end of 1927 and it attracted around 1,000 entries. It wasn’t long until the event expanded and subsidiaries of the competition were held in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Wales. However, the Second World War meant that it was temporarily put on hold at the end of the 1930s. Upon recommencing in 1947, the tournament was nationalised and continued to be the UK’s primary darts competition across the next 40years. It ran continuously until 1990, with Phil Taylor lifting the trophy for the final time at the Aston Villa Leisure Centre.
Darts maintained a fairly niche following and remained relatively low-profile throughout the 1950s and although it gained some momentum during the following decade, it was the 1970s that really catapulted it into the limelight. ITV televised the News of the World Championships for the first time in 1972, which took place at Alexandra Palace. The British Darts Organisation [BDO] was established in 1973 and the sport soon captured the imagination of the public. TV viewers were attracted to the sport in their droves and this was also reflected in an increase in people taking up the game in their local hostelries.
The BDO worked tirelessly to attract sponsors and broadcasters throughout the decade and 1979 was deemed a breakthrough year for the sport. Eight million viewers watched John Lowe win the Embassy World Professional Darts Championship, which was broadcast on the BBC. Lowe’s 5-0 win helped him become one of the sport’s biggest names and he was soon joined by the likes of Jocky Wilson, Alan Evans and the aforementioned Eric Bristow. Yorkshire Television’s Indoor League was another integral part of improving the sport’s profile and attracted millions of Northern viewers who were engrossed in the action, which took place at the Leeds Irish Centre. Sid Waddell was credited with creating the show, which ran until 1979. The Northumbrian went on to become one of the most popular voices on the box and quickly became an established commentator at the World Championships.
Televised Darts Events In The 1980s
Whilst the 1970s triggered an exponential growth in popularity, it was the following decade which was considered the ‘Golden Age’ of televised darts. Regular cries of ‘One Hundred and Eighty’ could be heard emanating from TV screens around the country alongside Sid Waddell’s regular flights of fancy and suitably colourful descriptions. Viewers were captivated by the sport and the propensity of these top players to sip their pint in-between throws simply added to the occasion.
The likes of Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson had clearly defined personalities and suitable nicknames thst further endeared them to their legions of fans. The Crafty Cockney won three consecutive World Championship titles between 1984 and 1986 and revelled in his wide-boy image. He was one of darts’ first household names and also went on to mentor many future stars, including Phil Taylor.
BDO World Championships
The BDO World Championships began in 1978, with the first staging of the event being held at a nightclub in Nottingham. It was briefly held in Stoke before taking up residency at Frimley Green in Surrey.
It was the unpredictability of this tournament that attracted huge audiences each year. Keith Deller’s 1983 victory over Eric Bristow is still regarded as one of sport’s greatest underdog stories.
Paul Lim was also one of the most popular players to feature regularly at the World Championships, with the Singaporean-American hitting the tournament’s first-ever perfect nine-darter in 1990 to claim an additional £50,000 in prize money.
After their initial success, the BDO struggled to maintain momentum towards the end of the 1980s and many of the players were reportedly unhappy with the sport’s lack of TV coverage. Darts was going through a barren period and something had to change. Things came to a head in 1989 with the top sixteen players breaking away from the BDO to form the WDC [World Darts Council], which was eventually renamed the PDC [Professional Darts Corporation]. In 1993, Sky Sports, who were still relatively new to the market, took a chance on a couple of WDC events and signed a deal to screen the World Matchplay and the World Championships.
Sky Sports had been attracting significant audiences for their Premier League coverage and it seemed like a sensible move for the organisation. 24 players competed in the inaugural WDC World Championships. Meanwhile, the BBC continued their coverage of the BDO version, with Bobby George spearheading a resurgence for the beleaguered governing body. Darts fans were truly spoilt for choice.
The World Stage
Despite its humble beginnings as a pub game, darts continued to grow in popularity, owing to its myriad of famous names and characters. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was more TV coverage than ever before and the number of tournaments kept growing, with the Grand Slam of Darts and the UK Open joining the ever-expanding list. Phil Taylor dominated the sport for many years and became a household name. Although not universally popular on the circuit, the Stoke thrower’s ability was never in doubt and he attracted fans around the world. With the expansion of TV rights, players from Australia, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands were soon part of the ever-expanding field and the introduction of the World Series of Darts and subsequently the US Open have also tapped into the American market.
The Premier League of Darts is one of the newest additions to the calendar and is one of Sky’s most popular sporting events. Taking place every Thursday night between February and May, the tournament has recently branched out to Rotterdam and Berlin and plans to move further afield are currently being considered.
Michael Van Gerwen is the latest name to dominate the game and his success is remarkable considering the amount of travel that is now required. The Dutchman took a month off in 2017 following the birth of his daughter as he claimed it would have been unsustainable to continue on the circuit with a newborn at home. Colourful characters such as Peter Wright and Gary Anderson still feature regularly for the PDC, whilst the likes of Glen Durrant continue to compete in BDO events. Fans are able to access streams and pictures from tournaments online and social media users are also able to keep up to date with their favourite players on a daily basis.
Whilst mainstream TV coverage of darts is fairly infrequent, events such as the Premier League of Darts continue to attract significant audiences and attending one of these events is quite the occasion. Many of the 2018 venues sold over 10,000 tickets and the sport continues to attract above-average figures. Attending one of these nights is an annual event for darts fans and the World Championships also attracts its fair share of festive revellers in North London. Darts has gone from being a weekend afternoon TV staple to a hugely raucous and fun evening out.
There are more chances than ever before to see your favourite players in the flesh and the sport continues to churn out a number of characters who gain popularity for their antics on the stage. It has come a long way over the past 40 years but the sport has truly stood the test of time, and with an ever-expanding set of fixtures to attend, it has truly become a global event. With a fairly uncomplicated set of rules, darts has always prided itself on being fairly accessible to the masses and it continues to go from strength to strength.