Gary Anderson despatched Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis in the final of the Premier League darts at Wembley last week to secure his first significant PDC title. Having missed out in three previous finals in the last twelve months, the victory was surely a seminal moment in Anderson’s career. It is now not entirely unrealistic to expect the Scot to arrive at Alexander Palace in December as favourite for the coveted World Championship title.
With the best four darts players in the world on show, Wembley was a good night for the sport. One swallow does not, however, make a summer, and the excitement of finals’ night was not enough to conceal the increasing challenges facing the event.
Premier League darts kicked off in Stoke in January 2005. The masterstroke of the Barry Hearn era, it quickly grew to become the UK’s biggest indoor sporting event. With the cast improving each year, the 2011 iteration featured the most exciting line-up yet: alongside Anderson and Lewis, ever-present Phil Taylor was joined by the likes of Raymond Van Barneveld, James Wade, and Simon Whitlock. But despite the genuine competitiveness, in its’ seventh year, Premier League darts is rapidly losing its appeal.
The key problem is the format – fourteen league weeks is a torturous period simply to reduce eight to four. Now that the novelty of the return of big time televised darts has worn off, the event needs to be genuinely exciting, but this tournament is rarely compelling after the first few weeks.
The 2011 version suffered particularly badly from Anderson and Taylor being shoe-ins for the finals so soon, and Mark Webster and Terry Jenkins between them not beating any of the other six players in the final ten weeks. With the identity of the top four all but confirmed with a couple of league nights still remaining, even Sky Sports struggled to sell the occasion.
The mutterings of discontent amongst darts fans became louder this year, ticket sales dropped at some venues, one night was ruined entirely by the behaviour of the very crowd so sought by the PDC, and viewing figures – although helped by the lack of English success in football’s Europa League this year – will have the TV Execs pondering the huge weekly investment in staging the event.
Surrounded by hyperbole and attended by many with little interest in the sport, Premier League darts exasperates as much as it excites. It is, however, the cash cow that funds much of the PDC tour – an undoubted triumph, which now finds itself in the unenviable position of being critical to the future of the PDC.
As dart fans look forward to what could be a spectacular summer of tungsten-tossing, Sky Sports and the PDC need to spend some time working out how to continue to milk this particular cow. Without a significant re-think, Premier League darts’ seven year itch may prove to be more than just a mild irritation.
Pointing out the limitations of the Premier League format is one thing, offering a viable alternative another. Assuming it needs to last 15 weeks and the better-known names need to appear each week, I would suggest increasing the league to ten players, dropping the bottom two after they’ve all played each other once, and then having the remaining eight play each other again, still in league format, with the top three qualifying automatically for finals’ night. The final qualifier would come from a play-off between fourth and fifth, concluding the last league night.
See below for exactly how this would work, but the result would be five matches most weeks, and peaks of interest at the beginning of the whole event (as currently), in weeks 7/8/9, and in week 14. Weeks 10-13 would see some players having two games, therefore allowing more change in the league standings.
(I would also scrap wildcards, giving places to the top 10 in the rankings, reduce all matches to first to seven, and allow higher ranked players to throw first in the play-offs; but that’s probably too much information).
The weekly format would run as follows:
Weeks 1-9: Ten players in league format, five games per night
Weeks 10-13: Eight players, six games per night (four players play twice)
Week 14: Last four league games, plus 4thv 5thplay-off
Week 15: Finals night, as current.