Arrows pointing up: Behind the scenes at the PDC William Hill World Darts Championship

The sport of darts is undergoing a renaissance, with its popularity growing across Europe. The 2017 edition of the Professional Darts Corporation William Hill World Darts Championship was the biggest to date, with records broken for ticket sales and TV viewing figures. SportsPro went behind the scenes at Alexandra Palace to find out what is driving the ever-increasing appetite for the arrows.

Arrows pointing up: Behind the scenes at the PDC William Hill World Darts Championship

The 2017 Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) William Hill World Darts Championship marked the tenth successive edition of the tournament to be held at London’s Alexandra Palace. It has been a decade that, in retrospect, neatly marks out a new, modern era for the PDC and for the sport of darts itself, which has experienced a resurgence of popularity over that period.

The World Championship’s previous venue, the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex, had firmly established itself as the UK’s home of darts over the course of the tournament’s 14-year residency there, but in 2007 PDC chairman Barry Hearn sensed an opportunity for growth and seized at the chance to move the season finale to one of the UK’s most iconic venues. Since that time, by every metric – ticket sales, viewing figures, sponsorship sales, prize money – the championship has grown exponentially.

Across the course of two and a half weeks over the Christmas period, ‘Ally Pally’, as the venue is colloquially known, is transformed into a fully fledged, dedicated darts venue, and the development of the sport is apparent almost immediately. The slick, professional operation incorporates all the staples of a major sporting event, from the 3,000-seater arena in the West Hall and a huge fanzone comprising food and drink stands and title sponsor William Hill’s own on-site betting shop, to a VIP hospitality area and even regular appearances from special celebrity guests. On the night SportsPro is in attendance, English soccer star Frank Lampard takes on TV host Bradley Walsh in a three-dart showdown before the main event gets underway.

The one giveaway that this is no ordinary sporting occasion comes in the form of the darts faithful who, as ever, make a night at ‘the arrows’ an occasion unlike any other. Fans arrive adorned in the fanciest of fancy dress, from a troop of soldiers to a waddle of penguins, complete with flippers. The noise levels in the arena rarely drop below 11, even between games, with chants of “stand up if you love the darts” ringing around Alexandra Palace throughout the night. According to William Hill, the bookmaker handed out over 50,000 blue Santa hats and 70,000 ‘180’ banners over the fortnight to audience members, who respond to almost every dart thrown with raucous enthusiasm.

The idea of darts as a night out as much as a sporting event is, arguably, the major remaining call back to an earlier era of the sport. For a generation of British television viewers, darts remains infused with a certain stereotype. The after-hours lifestyles of players, the madcap commentary of Sid Waddell, the variety act stylings of primetime game show Bullseye and, perhaps most damagingly, a Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch which saw Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones as darts players who competed by seeing who could drink the most alcohol, all contributed to an image of the game as a beer-fuelled pub pastime more than a professional sport.

It’s an image the PDC has worked hard to shed – largely with success, it must be said – although as the body’s chairman Matt Porter points out, the game must not lose sight of the fact that for the fans, it remains an integral part of the in-venue experience.

“Darts is about that great combination of sport and entertainment,” says Porter, speaking to SportsPro on the second evening of the 2017 PDC World Championship. “The crowd come to watch fantastic world class darts but also to enjoy themselves. And they do that by dressing up, having a drink, being with their friends, celebrating Christmas, celebrating 180s and big check-outs, the walk-ons, the whole atmosphere that darts creates. We can’t lose sight of that. The game must not become monotonous or predictable or boring in any way.”

It is a perspective with which Hearn agrees and, from his experience promoting sports as diverse as boxing and snooker across the world, he more than anyone understands the balance that must be struck.

“Darts is such a unique sport,” says Hearn. “It is the only sport that has a partnership with the excitement of a party and world class competition. I don’t know another sport that creates atmosphere on that basis, and that’s something we have to maintain, that’s our USP.”

The formula certainly seems to be working. For the 2018 edition, a move into into Alexandra Palace’s Great Hall is mooted, with the potential of doubling the current 3,000 capacity in the West Hall. 66,000 tickets were available for the 2017 tournament; 65,000 of those were sold on the first day they were released. On the basis of this sustained growth, Hearn has been able to announce total prize money of UK£11 million (US$13.7 million) across all the PDC’s competitions in 2017 – five times the amount it was when the World Championship moved to Alexandra Palace a decade ago, and a target Hearn set for the sport just two years ago, never expecting to hit it so soon. He has now revised his goal to UK£20 million (US$24.5 million).

Part of the sport’s newfound popularity can be attributed to a greater level of competitiveness on the board. In the first 14 years of the World Championship’s existence, after the PDC’s split from the British Darts Organisation (BDO), there were four winners, with relentless Englishman Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor taking home the title on no fewer than 11 occasions. In the ten years since the move to Alexandra Palace, there have been five different winners and, while Taylor’s powers have not diminished, rivals have emerged, often from farther afield than darts’ traditional north of England base. Scotland’s Gary Anderson and Dutchman Michael van Gerwen have both claimed two titles – and between them the last four – since the move, with an increased international outlook being another way in which the sport has transcended its roots in recent years.

That growth – which has come especially from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – was not a long-gestating master plan from the PDC, but part of a natural progression that particularly followed the success of Van Gerwen and his countryman Raymond van Barneveld before him.

“We haven’t marketed [the World Championship] internationally in any other way apart from staging events in different countries and having TV exposure,” explains Porter. The PDC, through its PDC Europe subsidiary, now runs nine European Tour events in Germany, holds Premier League nights in the Netherlands and the European Championship in Belgium. The expansion began when events organiser Werner von Moltke approached Hearn, believing that darts was a sport ready-made for the German market. Molkte subsequently founded the German Darts Corporation (GDC), which now operates as PDC Europe.

“The TV exposure through RTL7 in the Netherlands – who have their own on-site broadcast team here – Sport 1 and Dazn in Germany and Eleven Sports Network in Belgium gives us a really solid spread across that market and lots of exposure,” Porter adds. “It’s obviously our best advert for the product, so the more exposure we get, and the fact that culturally those countries are quite similar to the UK in terms of the demographic who would want to come to the darts, the more our profile’s rising in those countries, participation levels are rising and fan levels are as well. So there’s more and more people watching darts in those countries and being prepared to travel. They see it as a fun weekend, they might catch a football match, come over for a few days to see the World Championship.”

Casting his mind back to his first attempts to break Europe around a decade ago, Hearn recalls selling “50 tickets in advance, and another 50 on the night” for an event in Germany. “Today, we’re in 3,000 and 4,000-seater venues, we sell out in a day, every single event,” he says. In 2017, over 7,500 tickets were sold to German fans travelling to London for the World Championship, with a further 4,000 going to Dutch followers of the game.

Almost all of these fans will have made their initial contact with darts through television broadcasts before moving on to attending live events. While the atmosphere inside the arena is one of darts’ greatest selling points, packaging the product outside the arena is one of the sport’s biggest challenges. It is, as Hearn points out, “probably the only sport in the world which isn’t visible with the naked eye”, with even those watching inside Alexandra Palace relying on giant displays and the commentary from legendary announcer John McDonald to follow the contest. The entirety of the action takes place over a distance of little under two and a half metres, with players aiming at a board less than half a metre in diameter.

The person tasked with providing a solution to this challenge in the UK is Georgina Faulkner, head of multi sport at pay-TV giant Sky Sports. The multi sport department was created by Sky to oversee those sports in its portfolio which do not fit into the traditional year-round, seasonal model. Faulkner points to the National Football League’s (NFL) concise 23-week campaign as a prime example, but darts forms one of the cornerstones of multi sport’s output. Sky Sports has been one of the primary broadcast partners of the PDC since the start, and both Faulker and Hearn believe the network has played a significant role in the development of the game.

“Darts is always viewed as very important for Sky, and particularly the World Championship,” says Faulkner. “I think it’s a sport that Sky is particularly proud of because, along with the PDC, we’ve really helped to shape and grow the sport and we feel proud of our position within that landscape in a sport that continues to engage and entertain people.”

Alongside golf’s Ryder Cup and Masters and cricket’s Ashes, the PDC World Championship is one of the few events to receive what Faulkner describes as a “pop-up channel” from Sky Sports, with a temporary station known as Sky Sports Darts appearing on the schedule for the duration of the tournament.

“Like a lot of our big title events, we want it to be a focus in the EPG [electronic programme guide] so it really stands out for people,” says Faulkner. “It’s a reminder to all those die-hard fans, but also to anybody who might not put darts as one of their top sports but, as they’re looking through the EPG, they’ll see that immediately and they’ll see that this is the event at the moment and hopefully it helps to engage people.”

Porter certainly believes it has done so, claiming that reports from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) bear out the PDC’s own internal figures showing darts to be the second most popular sport on Sky Sports after soccer.

“We had a huge amount of growth four or five years ago, and that growth wasn’t going to continue at that level indefinitely because there are a finite number of people out there watching satellite TV,” says Porter. “We’re at a point now where our viewing figures are very stable and our ratings are extremely respectable. On ITV we’ve had peaks of over a million and on Sky, especially Sky Sports Darts which is fantastic credibility for the sport. For us to have blanket coverage over the Christmas period is fantastic.”

The viewing figures may have levelled out on a macro scale, but darts continues to push its own limits incrementally: the 2016 final peaked with 1.7 million viewers in the UK, 200,000 more than the previous high, while early figures from RTL7 in the Netherlands indicate that over 2.1 million people tuned in to watch Van Gerwen defeat Anderson in the 2017 final – equivalent to roughly 12 per cent of the country’s entire population and a 25 market share for the broadcaster. In Germany, meanwhile, Sport1’s highest ever viewing figures came during the 2016 World Championship final, which was watched by 1.8 million Teutonic darts devotees. “These are unbelievable figures, and they’re still on an upward trend,” says Porter.

Creating an engaging televisual spectacle from darts is no easy feat, but clearly something is going right. Faulkner believes her team have now honed their art, and she pays particular tribute to Keith Deller, the former professional darts player turned Sky Sports ‘spotter’. Deller is the man responsible for calling where the players will aim next on the board, dictating which shot the TV director should go to.

“One of the things that’s tough first and foremost with darts is that with a lot of sports – football, rugby, your more traditional mainstream sports – is that when you’re on the wide shot, your ‘camera 1’ angle where you can see lots of the action happening, that’s never a wrong angle because you can see what’s going on,” explains Faulkner. “Whereas with darts, if you go to the wide shot, it normally means something, somewhere has gone wrong. So it’s a real team effort between our director, our cameramen and our spotter, Keith Deller. Everybody’s listening to him in terms of the checkout combinations and whether players are going on the top of the board or the lower part of the board.

“All of that is essential because I think darts is a great sport to be viewed on television. As brilliant as it is to be in the arena and be part of the atmosphere and the event, it’s fabulous but watching it at home gives you that intense, close-up view of what is happening in terms of the action on the board. As with any sport I think that would be our first thing, to make sure the action is intense and we really do try to get over the intensity of the play in the match and how much it can swing back and forth and the pressure that is put on the players, with literally millimetres of difference between success and failure.”

Successfully communicating the tension and excitement of the sport is a major hurdle, but the second is placing the viewer in the atmosphere of the arena, in the middle of 3,000 fans whipping up a frenzy.

“One of the things that has always been part of that coverage, going back to the early days, was making sure that it is entertaining and that what is such a brilliant event in terms of the audience participation and the proximity of the crowd to the players, making sure that we got that across,” says Faulkner. “I think all of the more jazzy elements, the walk-ons and everything, we want to make that look as it feels when you’re there.

“It’s about being part of that party, and making sure that wherever possible and whenever appropriate we include the audience and the fans within that – so there’s lots of cutting to the crowd with their great costumes on and the sometimes hilarious signs that they’ll be holding up, so that if you’re sat at home I’d hope that firstly you’d think, brilliant, I’m part of it, and secondly, I’d really like to go and see that in the flesh and soak up that atmosphere.”

In 2017, viewers in 132 countries around the world have the opportunity to tune in and wish they were here. “That’s unparalleled,” says Hearn. “It’s including the whole of North America on ESPN and the whole of South America on ESPN LatAm. It’s Canada. It’s Asia. It’s Europe. It’s Australasia. It’s everywhere from CCTV in China to Dazn Sport in Japan. I’m so excited because, whilst I think this is an amazing achievement, I honestly truly believe this is just the beginning for a sport with no barriers to entry, with no expensive equipment, with no club fees to join – in other words it’s open to everyone, it’s a totally classless sport built solely on ability.”

With so many eyeballs on the game, the PDC is better placed than ever to attract commercial partners. The World Championship’s title sponsor, English bookmaker William Hill, is halfway through its six-year contract with the tournament, and Dave Lynn, the betting company’s head of sponsorships and partnerships, describes the three years it has had so far as “fantastic”.

“It’s been unbelievable in terms of the uplift we’ve seen in darts just over three years,” says Lynn. “It’s an exclusive sponsorship – most of the other tournaments that the PDC run have all the partners represented on the backdrops and other areas, but we have exclusivity on that which gives us significant media values, and the audiences at times are comparable with some Premier League football matches.”

Darts is particularly appealing to a betting company. Its rapid action means there are constant variables for punters to bet on and, as Lynn points out, the timing of the World Championship could not be better.

“From our perspective it’s a key period of the year, right across Christmas,” he says. “People are getting their new iPads, iPhones, things like that, so it’s a key period in terms of downloads, which  are massively up over that period. Obviously it gets great coverage from Sky, there’s upwards of 90 hours live coverage over those two weeks. And obviously there’s an international audience as well, in Holland and Germany which are emerging markets. We reach outside of the traditional UK audience through this.

It ticks a lot of the boxes in terms of the fact that you can duck in and duck out. It’s not just about the accumulators, it’s about the in-play, which is key – especially at the start of the tournament when some of the matches are quite uncompetitive from an outright perspective.”

For Hearn, the challenge now is to capitalise on the sport’s increasingly strong position. Never one to rest on his laurels, the indomitable promoter is ready to strike while the iron is hot. “I always say that complacency is the biggest killer in life, but sometimes it’s difficult not to be complacent when things are going so well,” he says. “The happy news is that we are flying.”

With growth in Europe continuing apace and the UK fanbase gradually expanding too, Hearn is ready to take another run at the market he calls the “golden goose”: the United States. Having had a previous stab at the US before with the Las Vegas Desert Classic, which took place between 2002 and 2009, Hearn feels he and the PDC have learned from the lessons of the past. While Hearn is not taking anything for granted, 2017 will see the relaunch of the PDC in the States, to what he hopes will be a more receptive audience than last time.

“The American market is the toughest in the world to crack for any sport,” he says. “America is all about jam today and no investment in tomorrow. And that’s why they cherry-pick the biggest events – the Super Bowl, the NBA [National Basketball Association] – they’re established and they absorb all the money and everything else is considered a niche sport. We’re going back to Vegas, we’re going to give it another crack. I think we would regret it if we didn’t have another go there.”

Whatever the future holds on the Atlantic’s western shores, the sport remains in rude health in its home territory. The PDC’s next targets will be further expansion into northern Europe – there is already a small but loyal following in Scandinavia – and, perhaps slightly further down the line, a search for a true successor in the UK to Phil Taylor, the player who has defined the PDC era but whose days at the oche are numbered after he signalled an intention to reduce his commitments over the coming years. With a selection of TV and sponsorship deals coming up for renewal in the coming seasons, however, Hearn will be confident of reaching his bullseye target of UK£20 million in prize money sooner rather than later.