Darts Jim, but not as we know it – the PDC tour card

July 7, 2008

From 2011 the PDC will be adopting a tour card system. Announced last month, this is probably the biggest change to the structure of professional darts since the big split of the early 1990s. In the words of Barry Hearn, Chairman of the PDC, “this is Star Trek darts – not darts as we know it Jim.”

In January 2011 the top 96 players from the official PDC Order of Merit will receive their card, and with it eligibility for tournaments throughout that year. A further 32 cards will also be available that month via a Qualification School. All UK events will then be restricted to the 128 card-carrying players.

In a process similar to that used in professional golf, the top 96 at the end of the year – presumably directly after the World Championship – will retain their card. The other 32 will go back to school, where they will face fierce competition to remain in the elite from those bubbling under.

Final details of the new system will be announced before the end of the year following consultation with the Professional Dart Players Association, and, as can be expected from any significant change in the running of a sport, the announcement leads to as many questions as answers. Hearn, however, in a typically chipper recent interview with Sky Sports’ commentator Stuart Pyke, didn’t appear too concerned about the detail. He was in very high spirits:
“I love every minute of every day. I have always had the machine gun and players gave me the bullets to fire. They are the sport of darts and together we will continue to be an unbeatable team.”

Hearn is right to be bullish. The existing tour has grown exponentially since the turn of the century, with new ventures announced on a seemingly monthly basis. The effect has been a sharp rise in both the quantity and depth of quality of players battling for ever-increasing winnings on the Order of Merit.

Whatever the fine detail, the announcement of the tour card system will make a full-time career as a darts player a realistic ambition for thousands of aspiring dartists. Ten years ago most of the top sixteen PDC players had additional jobs and careers outside the game. Limiting the entry numbers for tournaments will not only make the tour more manageable, but will ensure that those who have earned their place have the security of a full year to give their chosen profession a proper go. In order to reap the benefits of the new system, expect the vast majority of tour card holders to view darts as their sole job.

The new arrangement will doubtless alter the relationship between the PDC and the BDO. Much may depend on whether the PDC runs a ‘Challenger’ tour or similar for those who don’t quite make the 128 cut – such as those contested in golf or tennis. Regardless, it can be expected that some current PDC players will return to the ranks of the BDO, and that many from the county darts scene will be tempted to have a throw at School. The BDO will need to decide how to deal with players who are unsuccessful in these attempts – or face the ignominy of their remaining stalwarts being surrounded (and occasionally defeated) by PDC rejects. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the BDO try to prevent being seen by all as the second-class darts organisation by considering ways to prevent their players attending School in the first place – possibly involving a misguided threat of legal action.

There are two other likely impacts. Firstly, there will be little point in a BDO player moving to the PDC in 2010. Players who are considering the switch may as well either make the most of the two year opportunity to secure their spot comfortably in the top 92 (the Order of Merit is based on earnings over twenty-four months), or stay at the BDO until 2011 and then try to qualify. Expect more movement across to the PDC in January 2009.

Secondly, the BBC contract to show the BDO World Championship expires in 2010. Expect, well, who knows what to expect, but as the PDC grows ever more professional, the continuing claim by the Corporation on their website that they are broadcasting ‘the most coveted prize’ in darts may well become laughable – and at some point they will have to consider the value of another contract. If the Lakeside tournament was lost from terrestrial TV screens, expect a seismic and irrevocable shift in the fault line that is the relationship between the two darting organisations.

Even if the BDO World Championship stays on the BBC, it is unlikely to be able to match the prize money of the PDC. Alongside the tour card announcement, the PDC also revealed that in the 2009-10 season they will run five tournaments with a first prize of £100,000 or more. The player crowned World Champion will receive £200,000 out of the £1 million pot available for that tournament alone.

The sums on offer for being the best in the world at chucking three bits of metal into a board are yet to reach the heights of those splashed out for hitting a ball over a net with a piece of carbon fibre (Rafa Nadal picked up £750,000 yesterday at Wimbledon). Nor do they match the cash given to someone able to use several pieces of metal to bang one ball into 18 different holes four times (£750,000 for Padraig Harrington at The Open last year). But to even be discussing darts earnings in the same breath as tennis or golf would have been preposterous ten years ago.

Darts prize money is only just approaching a par with snooker – not a great surprise. But the vast and rapid increases to achieve near parity have been nothing short of dramatic.

Ronnie O’Sullivan won £250,000 in May of this year for his five victories in Sheffield. But in 1999 Stephen Hendry left The Crucible with £230,000, just £20,000 less. The same year Paul Lawrie won £350,000 at Carnoustie, and Pete Sampras went home from SW19 £455,000 better off. Phil Taylor beat Peter Manley 6-2 on the way to his seventh World Championship. The Power took home £30,000 (roughly comparable with that on offer for the current World Indoor Bowls or World Squash champions).

“We will create darts millionaires,” continued Hearn, before acknowledging that Taylor and probably Raymond Van Barneveld already are. With a tenfold increase in overall prize money in just ten years, in his new world of Star Trek darts, nobody could accuse him of being illogical, captain.

The interview with Barry Hearn is reported at stuartpyke.com. Details of the Tour Card system are at planetdarts.tv.