Does ESPN’s walk-on threaten darts’ annual water-cooler moment?

August 19, 2011

A brief news piece published on the British Darts Organisation website yesterday confirmed that ESPN will join the BBC in broadcasting the 2012 darts World Championship. “All at ESPN are delighted,” tweeted former BBC darts host Ray Stubbs, who will now be expected  to return to The Lakeside to front the ESPN coverage in January.

The news was hidden in a short piece about new BDO Chair Barry Gilbey meeting with Bob Potter, owner of the World Championship venue – a meeting presumably arranged to allay fears about the spectre of Potter’s friendship with recently-ousted BDO founder Olly Croft. In truth, however, the news about the additional broadcaster may turn out to be of much greater significance to the future of the BDO than the election of a new Board.

ESPN’s move into darts should be viewed as entirely positive, particularly with ITV’s involvement increasingly tenuous – the lack of investment in the recent European Championship was plain to see. As a sports channel, it can be expected that ESPN will not only help to increase the profile of the game (including in the US), but that it will do so with appropriate sporting respect.

The situation with the BBC is altogether more complicated. For the last few years the Beeb’s coverage of the game has been confused, to say the least. It is fine to highlight the amusing aspects and characters of darts, of which there are many, but the annual New Year pantomime has frequently ventured into a farce that would not be acceptable with other sports. Worse still, scheduling limitations have regularly resulted in viewers being denied the climax of matches, and in the last couple of years consistent live coverage on the main BBC channels has been as infrequent as a Martin Adams defeat.

Details of the new arrangement have yet to be released, but it is clear that the exclusive broadcast contract for coverage up to 2013 (agreed in 2009) has been re-negotiated to allow this deal. It can be presumed that ESPN will show the bulk of the tournament live, and that the BBC will broadcast highlights shows, the finals, and, at best, one live game a day.

ESPN’s involvement could lead to much needed re-energised World Championship, but, whatever its’ limitations, the importance of the BBC coverage should not be underestimated.

The BDO World Championship final live on the BBC is darts’ annual day in the spotlight in the UK: the following morning is the only time that ‘arrers’ has its very own moment at the water-cooler. The BBC coverage remains the biggest – indeed possibly the only – jewel in the BDO’s rather jaded crown; without it the future of top-class darts within the BDO system would be extremely exposed.