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Darts for Darts’ Sake

How a pub game became the second-biggest televised sport in England … and maybe soon America

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It was just after 7 p.m. in an arena in Birmingham, England. The light was low. The crowd was murmuring. A song came over the loudspeaker. It was “Shut Up and Dance.” On cue, middle-aged men rose from communal tables. With one hand, they held giant plastic cups of beer above their heads. With the other hand, some pointed a single, ecstatic finger toward the ceiling. They began to dance.

Throughout the night, they would rise from their tables to dance again and again. To “Sweet Caroline.” To “Ice Ice Baby.” To Tina Turner’s “The Best.” To Pitbull.

An anthropologist who saw white men dancing so unashamedly would guess that one of two things had happened. Someone turned on a low-numbered SiriusXM channel. Or else the men were watching a niche sport that has conquered British TV and is now moving to colonize the world, including America. The men had come to watch the darts.

Darts, as its Vince McMahon–like impresario Barry Hearn likes to say, is a world-class sport that’s played at a party. As “Shut Up and Dance” wafted through the arena, Michael Smith climbed onto the stage. Smith’s face is as round as a dartboard. He has black hair cut into a mohawk. His nickname is “Bully Boy.” But as he stood at the foot of the stage, he kissed his hands and received the audience’s applause, like a tenor who was about to burst into song.

Smith’s opponent was a hulking Serb named Mensur Suljovic. Suljovic’s nickname is the “The Gentle.” But beneath his fixed, ebullient smile, there is a tireless worker. As Suljovic told me, “I never go on holiday … ever.”

Smith and Suljovic began to play darts. The Gentle aimed at the highest-value part of the board, then threw a 20, another 20, and a treble 20—scoring 100. Pretty good. Bully Boy walked up to the toe line, or oche, and put all three of his darts in treble 20. “Onnnnnne hundred and eighty,” the caller, Russ Bray, growled into a microphone. Bully Boy had gotten the maximum score.

The funny thing about attending a darts match is that you can hardly see the darts. The dartboard was mounted on a stage at Arena Birmingham. The players stood just under eight feet away. Even fans in the best seats tended to watch the action on video screens. “How many are here—8,000?” said Keith Deller, the 1983 world champion. “Maybe 1,500 might be proper dart fans. The rest are just coming out for a night.”

The fans in attendance weren’t the only fans, of course. Darts—like its American cousin, the World Series of Poker—is a product of the “magic of telly.” Onstage, Smith and Suljovic were surrounded by 11 Sky Sports cameras, including a jib that rotated above and around them. Two cameramen prowled through the crowd hunting for fans in funny costumes.

On the live Sky broadcast, viewers had watched Smith and Suljovic walk to the stage on a green carpet, flanked by security, like boxers walking to the ring. In fact, the carpet terminated in the middle of the arena. Smith and Suljovic had walked to the end of the carpet, waited there for their cues, and then made their televised walk.

“It’s two men throwing from 8 feet at a board, generally at treble 20,” said Rory Hopkins, a longtime Sky Sports producer. “You do need to have every trick in the book.”

Dart players are about the most effortlessly authentic athletes in the world. (“I didn’t feel meself tonight,” one said apologetically, after turning in a poor performance.) But the sport’s journey from the English pub to U.S. television is a story of fierce creation. The imagineering it required is reminiscent of 1980s WWF. Darts is infused with so much animal showmanship that it almost feels American.

Here in the U.K., darts runs on TV on Thursday nights—a night when the Premier League doesn’t play. From that safe harbor, it has flourished. In 2018, the World Darts Championship final was watched by 1.4 million British viewers and another 2.7 million Germans. Last year, BBC America’s Thursday Night Darts netted around 1 million viewers a week on linear TV; in January, the network awarded darts the prestigious post–Doctor Who slot on New Year’s Day. The surest sign that there’s money to be made from darts is that American viewers can find more than a dozen Professional Darts Corporation events (the U.K. Open, Brisbane Darts Masters) in the Sears catalog of sports offered by DAZN.

It’s probably an overstatement to say darts is Europe’s second-most popular TV sport behind soccer. Which means Barry Hearn says it all the time. Hearn, who is a scenery-chewing 70 years old, is one of Britain’s most fully realized sports promoters—think Dana White with a better tailor. Two weeks ago, I went to visit him at his office, which is located in a Georgian mansion in Essex, east of London. The cabbie who left me at the doorstep said, “Come to see His Majesty, have you?”

Hearn sat behind a desk in what used to be living room. Out the door, there was a picture of him with Don King, and a note from Rupert Murdoch, scribbled in the heat of a rights negotiation, which began, “Hearn—Get fucked …” Hearn spoke of his favorite topic, which is the overwhelming success of Barry Hearn.

Phil Taylor, Barry Hearn, and Rob Cross
PA Images via Getty Images

“I’m a commercial animal,” he said. “I’m the best in the world at what I do, I think. Well, I know. But I hope other people think.”

Hearn has tentacles in TV sports like boxing (his company promotes Anthony Joshua), tenpin bowling, and snooker, which was running on British TV last week. In 1997, Hearn walked into a tavern in the town of Purfleet to watch a darts tournament. Through the cigarette smoke, he could see a mass-participation sport being played by oddly endearing blokes—the raw materials of a hit. “Fuck,” Hearn thought. “I can smell the money.”

According to historian Patrick “Doctor Darts” Chaplin, the first darts match appeared on the BBC in 1937. But after a TV heyday that stretched into the ’80s, darts slipped into obscurity. In 2001, Hearn bought the Professional Darts Corporation. With the help of Murdoch’s newly created Sky Sports, he set about refitting the sport for the modern age.

Hearn’s up-from-the-pub transformation of darts is similar to the one he underwent himself. (He was quick to point out that he was speaking to me in an unposh, East London accent.) Removed from its working-class trappings—but with its players still radiating working-class chic—darts could become something like England’s NASCAR.

“The whole perception of the sport changes from a pub game, where people in this country especially look down their nose [at it],” Hearn said. “Working class people having fun. It’s not really allowed in Britain, you know?”

“It’s very accessible, isn’t it?” said John McDonald, a stage announcer who is the Michael Buffer of darts. “You can’t go in your garden at home and go, ‘C’mon honey, go long!’ and throw a ball and expect her to dive through the hedge and catch it. You can easily go in the kitchen, put a bull up, and have a little chuck.”

The Professional Darts Corporation could sell out an arena in London every week. But Hearn learned from the WWE that there’s value in tending to fans in Tulsa and Columbus. The event I attended in Birmingham would be followed by stops in Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds.

In the ’70s and ’80s, darts was dominated by shambling characters like Jocky Wilson, who polished off a half-dozen pre-match vodkas “so that I can play my best.” Today, the men (and a few women) who compete at darts are a more streamlined, professional class. “They’re just robots,” said Deller. “It’s all about money now. I bet if you asked the top 20 ‘Do you love darts?’ about 12 of them might say no. It’s just a job.”

Thus, the characters must be amplified, if not created, by TV. The first thing Hearn mandated is that every darts player should have a catchy nickname. “Bully Boy” and “The Gentle” compete with Rob “Voltage” Cross, a former electrician. The Scotsman Peter Wright is “Snakebite.” Daryl Gurney, who has a profile like Jay Leno’s, is “SuperChin.”

“It’s actually quite insulting to call someone SuperChin, I think,” Hearn said. “But he loves it.” Gurney agreed. “I’m not a spice boy,” he told me.

Like pro wrestlers, darts player also have walk-on music that’s picked by a committee of sponsors, managers, and league higher-ups. After joining the tour in 2016, Cross walked on to the stage to Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage.” After a huddle with the powers that be, Cross now comes out to Arrow’s “Hot Hot Hot,” a song everyone can sing along to.

The hits of the ’80s, the ’90s, and today have pulled darts toward a culturally unchallenging, family-friendly atmosphere like the WWE’s Hulkamania era. Beer that flowed freely in darts 40 years ago has been removed not just from the stage but the media room, as well. Darts has cheerleaders, but last year the PDC evicted the “walk-on girls” that accompanied the competitors to the stage.

Poker’s TV producers marketed Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan as sharks that could relieve a mark of his money. Hearn pitched the PDC’s dartsmen a bit differently. They are proper gents. “When you look at a darts player, you see someone who may well live in the street next to you—but they’re good,” Hearn said. Last November, when fans complained that Welshman Gerwyn “The Iceman” Price was indulging in gonzo celebrations during matches, he was fined a whopping 21,500 pounds.

As with wrestling and poker, darts’ rough edges have been sanded down so carefully that it’s a shock when the sport’s old rowdiness sneaks back in. Last year, at a tournament in the city of Wolverhampton, someone let out some horrific farts on stage during a match. To the delight of the British press, the players blamed each other. Asked for comment, Hearn deadpanned, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this.”

As a TV sport, darts has a major problem: Nothing much happens. The “action” is as Martin Amis once described it: “solid thunks followed by shouted numbers against a savage background of taunts and screams.” When Sky Sports producers show an instant replay, they’re more likely to show a player celebrating than throwing a dart. The open-mouthed fist pump is more electric than the actual sport.

“We create the show in many ways,” said Dave Clark, one of Sky Sports’ hosts. Some of the tricks will be familiar to any American who watches too much ESPN. Sky Sports’ broadcasts begin with computer-generated darts flying through the air, their points emerging tumescently from the barrels.

Before each match, Sky shows a graphic of the two competitors standing in profile. Then, they turn their heads toward the camera and cross their arms. The shot owes something to the UFC. But with their plain black slacks and regular-guy physiques, darts players look more like two salesmen competing to win this year’s Toyotathon sales event.

The effect of such production values is to convince viewers at home they’re watching a big-time sport. “Sometimes that belief can be generated by you just telling them over and over and over again until in the end they believe you,” Hearn said.

The darts matches I watched moved briskly and clocked in at about a half-hour—a nod to distracted millennials, Hearn said. The game is fairly simple: Each competitor starts a “leg” with 501 points. The first to whittle that number down to exactly zero wins—and the dart that takes them to zero must land in the outer, “double” ring or in the bullseye. Sky puts the winning combinations on screen so mathematically-challenged viewers can follow along.

Long ago, the Beeb invented the classic darts shot: a split screen that shows the player and the board. Sky and others have added nifty flourishes. If the competitor throws two treble 20s, as Bully Boy did, Sky will execute a Robert Altman zoom toward the board to see if the player can land the coveted 180.

Watching from the U.S., I found that Sky’s directors had an uncanny ability to anticipate which the part on the dartboard the player would target. In Birmingham, I went to the Sky truck and found Deller, the former world champion, sitting next to Rory Hopkins. Officially, Deller is a “spotter.” But he’s more like the wizard of darts. His job is to figure out which part of the board the players are aiming at and tell the director, so that Sky’s camera shot arrives on your screen a split second before the dart.

“We’d probably get away with anyone else not turning up,” Hopkins said. “If he didn’t turn up, we’d be in a lot of trouble.”

Deller had a sheet of paper next to him on which he’d scrawled out Smith and Suljovic’s tendencies, which helped some. Otherwise, Deller relied on the muscle memory of an ex-champion or watched the players’ eyes. When he saw Bully Boy drop his eyes from treble 20 to treble 19, Deller yelled “Down!” and Sky’s director took a shot of the bottom of the board. The comedian Stephen Fry was so mesmerized by Deller’s talent that he once asked to watch him in action.

The final trick darts producers figured out was how to make those dancing fans into characters on the broadcast. It was the legendary darts announcer Sid Waddell who described a darts show as a combination of Christians being fed to the lions and the Munich beer festival.

“When you analyze the viewing habits of darts fans, approximately one-third of their time is spent actually watching the darts,” Hearn said. “Two-thirds is spent socializing, drinking, gambling.”

Hearn added: “Andy Warhol said everybody wants to be famous for 15 minutes. Darts fans want to be famous for two seconds.”

In the style of wrestling and the NFL, Sky Sports sends its cameras hunting for fans dressed as French fries, as traffic cones, and as Freddie Mercury. (Spotting me with a notepad, “Freddie” demanded I bump knuckles with him.) The promotion distributes blank signs (the sponsor’s name is handily printed at the top) that fans can scribble jokes on when they get to the arena. Sky shows the ones with the funniest quips.

There’s a deep and knotty psychology to darts that’s only hinted at on the TV broadcast. Backstage, I asked James “The Machine” Wade what it was like to win a match on television. “It’s a bit like being the unpopular boy at school and you have a slight bit of success in life,” he said.

And to lose?

“You feel like the bullied kid at school again,” he said.

For the final match in Birmingham (slotted in the viewer-rich, 9 p.m. hour), I pushed away four empty beer cups and took a seat at a communal table near the stage. The competitors were Wade and Dutchman Michael “Mighty Mike” van Gerwen. Van Gerwen sits at the top of the Premier League standings, if not the entire sport. But Wade played very well, taking a lead of seven legs to five. (The night’s matches were best of 14.) Van Gerwen had to win the last two legs to force a draw.

It was a wonderful half-hour watching sports. From a seat in the crowd, the sound was far richer than it is on TV. It meant something when a fan stopped his boozy conversation to turn to the stage. But the way darts has transformed itself for TV is so all-encompassing, so clever, that part of me wished I was watching on telly, or on my phone.

At his office in Essex, Hearn surveyed the more than 100 countries where darts is now shown on one device or another. “This world’s changing too fucking fast for an old man like me,” he said.

“I doubt that,” I said politely.

“I doubt that, as well,” Hearn said. “I’m just saying it to hear you say it.”

An earlier version of this piece included an incorrect date.

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