x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

How darts hit the bull's-eye

Darts boasts colourful characters with even more colourful nicknames, bizarre terminology, eccentric commentators and exceptionally vocal fans.

Raymond van Barneveld, seen here in action during the semi-finals of the PDC World Championship last week, is now a national hero in the Netherlands.
Raymond van Barneveld, seen here in action during the semi-finals of the PDC World Championship last week, is now a national hero in the Netherlands.

Matt Majendie looks at how a pub sport has grown while its competitors have slimmed Darts' finest player started his working life making ceramic toilet chains earning just £48 (Dh270) a week. Since then Phil "the Power" Taylor has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top where he has stayed for nearly two decades, capped by winning an unprecedented 14th world title last weekend and a £125,000 (Dh700,000) payday.

He includes singer Robbie Williams among his close friends and was watched by jockey Frankie Dettori and Arsenal striker Robin van Persie as he brushed aside Raymond van Barneveld in the final - a far cry from his toilet-making past. Much like Taylor, who racked up the best three-dart average in a world championship final - 110.94 - in the process, darts is very much on the up. The UK is in the thralls of darts fever, and it is spreading throughout the globe.

Something of a seasonal disorder, every December and January, the world's best players line up for darts' two world championships, the Professional Darts Corporation's version, won last week for the 12th time by Taylor, and that of the British Darts Organisation, which reaches its climax tomorrow night. Aside from having two world championships, darts is a sport like no other. It boasts colourful characters with even more colourful nicknames, bizarre terminology, eccentric commentators and exceptionally vocal fans. And its popularity is not just the reserve of the UK - it is particularly big business in Canada and Holland and is gaining popularity throughout Asia.

Darts is not exactly sweeping the United Arab Emirates, although Dubai has boasted its own league since the 1970s when the sport enjoyed its first big surge in popularity. Back then, characters like Eric "the Crafty Cockney" Bristow, John "Old Stoneface" Lowe and Bobby "Dazzler" George, ruled the roost. Their success and that of their peers spawned Bullseye, a long-running darts quiz show which, at its peak boasted 19 million viewers, a third of the UK population at the time.

But with football's sharp ascent in popularity, darts slipped back into relative obscurity. Television viewing figures started to drop and the sport looked in danger of dying. However, a split in the sport with the formation of the PDC in 1992 has brought in more money, increased global exposure and a new breed of players. The PDC chairman Barry Hearn says prize money in the PDC has risen from a paltry £600,000 in 2003 to £5million this year. His plan is to double that.

Hearn, who used to manage snooker player Steve Davis and helped turned the sport into a global phenomenon in the 1980s, expects darts to follow suit. "I saw this with snooker in the 1970s and 80s and I'm seeing it bundles more here," he said. "It's cheaper to get going with darts for starters, it doesn't take a genius to work out a little darts board is cheaper than a snooker table." To show the diversity of its popularity, the duel world championships have seen players from Japan, India, Barbados, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and the Philippines compete.

In Holland, for example, it has been headline news since the mid-1990s when Raymond "Barney" van Barneveld first made his mark on the world stage. When he first won the BDO title in 1998, there were just 16,000 darts players in Holland, now that is nearer the 50,000 mark and, when he won that title, the country went darts crazy. Six million of his 16 million countrymen tuned in to watch him beat Richie Burnett to win the first of his world titles.

When he was crowned BDO world champion for a fourth time in 2005 he even received a message of congratulations from Holland's Queen Beatrix, and he counts Real Madrid's Arjen Robben and the Ajax football coach Marco van Basten among his friends. Barney, a former postman, is still amazed by the way darts, for the Dutch public, has changed so dramatically. "When it was first on, people were saying what's this Dutch dude doing playing this crazy English sport?" he said.

"But then after 1998 I arrived back at Schipol airport [in Amsterdam] and the place was full of people cheering for me. It was crazy, they made me feel like Michael Jackson. For a day, I felt like a pop star." His popularity has led to the "Barney Army" being in attendance wherever he goes. But Dutch loyalty is now split with a new raft of younger, leaner players coming through the ranks and impressing. Gone is darts' association with English pubs and drinking, now at least some of the competitors work out at gyms and adhere to a strict diet.

As the Dutchman Jelle Klaasen, who won the BDO title in 2006, said: "I'm young, I'm fit and I don't have a belly." In fact, even the more older, established players are showing signs of slimming down. Barneveld was a convert to the Atkins Diet while Taylor is slimmer round the waist than in previous years, a high-risk strategy bearing in mind some argue it cost him the 2003 world crown. Then, a new slimline Taylor was bidding for a ninth straight world title but with three less stone around his waist after a hefty diet during the previous four months. It saw his average score drop massively, leading pundits to suggest the weight loss had affected his balance.

Whatever the case, Barney and Taylor's dietary habits are dwarfed by the darts slimmer of the century, Andy Fordham. The pub landlord was renowned for unwinding for a match by eating six steak and kidney pies. However, that all changed in 2007 when Fordham was taken ill during his first-round match at the BDO World Championship. In hospital, he had to have 18 litres of fluid drained from his lungs and he also suffered a minor stroke.

Since then, he has shed 17 stone and jokes that "my wife thinks I'm half the man I used to be". As the new breed slim down for action, Fordham, aka "the Viking", is likely to be one of darts' last larger than life characters. While the likes of Fordham, van Barneveld and Taylor are the faces of the sport, there is just one voice - Sid Waddell, the television commentator. The son of a coal miner, Waddell grew up in relative poverty in Northumberland in the north of England but won himself a place at St John's College in Cambridge where his love of darts proved infectious.

He got the chance to commentate and used his photographic memory on all manner of subjects to produce some of the most captivating commentary. After Eric Bristow's fourth world title, Waddell, who was once hit over the head by Bristow's mother by a handbag for one particularly cheeky piece of commentary, famously said: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow's only 27."

On another Bristow match - when the "Crafty Cockney" was facing defeat - Waddell uttered down the microphone: "If Eric gets back into this, it'll be the greatest comeback since Lazarus." Waddell commentated on the first televised world championship final in 1978 and, although he has moved from the BBC to Sky, he remains the undoubted voice of the sport. As a fan on a messageboard wrote: "Having darts without Sid Waddell is like having bread without butter, Stan without Laurel and sausage without mash".

As for the appeal of the sport, Waddell says that is easy. "For me, it has everything," he said. "You've got two guys going head to head at the top of their game in front of a baying crowd. It's sport at its rawest and finest." Then there is the whole farce that goes with every match. There's flashing lights, shouts of 180 (the highest score available by a player on a visit to the board), garish shirts and big, staged entrants.

Bobby George used to enter stage left holding a candelabra while Andy "The Hammer" Hamilton insists on having MC Hammer's You Can't Touch This blaring out as he enters for a match. Other notable showmen include Peter "One Dart" Manley, who is played in by Is This The Way to Amarillo as he pretends to fire darts at the assembled audience, and Canadian John "Darth Maple" Part, who was accompanied by Star Wars' characters at last year's PDC World Championship final.

Usually in attendance are the darts players' wives, who are worthy of a mention in their own right. Unlike footballer's other halves, there is not a Luis Vuitton handbag or a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes in sight, instead the wives are more prone to being caught on camera screaming their support at their husbands. The WAGs are not the only women in the sport. The women's world champion Anastasia Dobromyslova, nicknamed "From Russia with Love", was handed a wildcard to compete against the men at the PDC event and, despite getting the thumbs up from and practising with Taylor, her appearance was met with mixed opinions.

Eric Bristow, who retired from the sport a decade ago, said: "She shouldn't be in it. I don't know what that's all about. A lot of professional darts players are not very happy about it." Whatever the case, having women taking on the men is a far cry from darts' previous heyday in the 70s and 80s when testosterone and tattoos ruled the roost. Bristow is very much from that generation and, like many of his peers, does not do political correctness. His recently released autobiography, The Crafty Cockney, even opens with the line "You play like a poof..." - but Bristow makes no apologies for his sometimes brash comments.

A former petty thief and violent gang member, he was saved by darts and went on to win five world titles and reign supreme during the 1980s. He passed the mantle on to Taylor, giving the Stoke thrower the £10,000 he needed to quit his job and get started in the sport. Ironically, Taylor ended Bristow's career in 1997 beating his former paymaster in the semi-finals of that year's world championship.

Taylor is, by a distance, the richest darts player of all time, comfortably raking in the cash. But while Taylor has been earning top dollar in the PDC - he boasts career earnings of almost £5mn, Wales' Mark Webster was earning a relatively meagre £7,500 a year as a trainee plumber when he won last year's BDO title. Taylor is desperate for darts to be taken seriously and has been pushing for its inclusion at the 2012 London Olympics.

He said recently: "Darts requires the same dedication and skill as any other event. I don't know if it will happen soon but I'm convinced it will one day." The PDC have the upper hand in terms of the calibre of players and revenue, while the BDO have the bigger televised following, with it being shown on BBC rather than Sky in the UK. As for the direction the two bodies will go in from 2009, it is unknown. Whatever the case, Taylor looks likely to lead the way.

mmajendie@thenational.ae