Is the BDO courting trouble?

March 28, 2008

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has held an interest in darts over the last fifteen years that the sport has recently been back in court. And, although the case was neither in the UK, nor a direct clash between the two sides of the tungsten curtain, the decision could turn out to be one of the most significant in the game since the famed 1997 Tomlin order.

In addition to two major tournaments shown on the BBC every year – the World Masters in the Autumn, and the World Championship in January – British Darts Organisation (BDO) players have, for the last five or so years, been involved in two significant events in Holland. The World Darts Trophy (WDT) launched in 2002, with the International Darts League (IDL) commencing the following year.

The format was a mixture of leagues and knockout (similar to the FIFA World Cup), and the early tournaments were dominated by the Dutch superhero, Raymond Van Barneveld, who completed the double in both 2003 and 2004.

‘Barney’s’ success was, it turned out, the catalyst for later problems. In early 2006 he switched allegiance to play for the Professional Darts Organisation (PDC). The WDT and IDL were tournaments solely for BDO players, but excluding Van Barneveld from a televised darts tournament in Holland was like expecting Alan Sugar to endorse employment law. The organisers, in the guise of the wonderfully named Ad Schoofs, realised that they needed Barney, so resolved to invite a limited number of PDC players to enter both 2006 tournaments – a move repeated the following year to also ensure the participation of the new Dutch PDC converts such as Jelle Klaasen and Michael Van Gerwen.

Prior to the Grand Slam of Darts, launched on ITV in November 2007, the two Dutch tournaments were the only competitive events involving all the best players in the world. But although the WDT and IDL were a breath of fresh air to audiences able to watch online, the popularity of darts in Holland was on the wane. The crowds created little of the atmosphere seen at UK events, the format was thought to be a little dated (although there were no such concerns when it was copied for ITV’s Grand Slam), and darts had reached such heights throughout the Netherlands in the previous few years that a trough was inevitable. Audience figures on Dutch television began to drop.

The PDC, with Barry Hearn at the helm and an increasingly strong contingent of Dutch players on the books, saw the opportunity to take charge of darts in Holland. It pulled out of both the IDL and WDT, and later announced plans to set up two new tournaments, the European Championship and the Dutch Masters.

Ad Schoofs wasn’t happy. He believed that the PDC was contracted to continue to provide players for the 2008 tournaments, and that the Dutch broadcaster SBS6 was legally obliged to broadcast it. Without the Dutch contingent, not to mention Taylor, Wade, Part and other top PDC players, his tournaments would lose all credibility. So, in February this year, he took the PDC and SBS6 to a Dutch court.

He lost. The judge concluded that there was no agreement between the parties beyond 2007. And that was that. With no Barney there was no broadcaster, and with no telly, there is no tournament. The possibility of an appeal apparently remains, but for now the PDC are moving ahead with plans for the European Open in Holland live on SBS6 from 30th October, and two of the BDO’s most important tournaments have, at a stroke, disappeared.

So, what to make of another round of easy money for the lawyers?

Firstly, having spent a number of years calling these tournaments ‘majors’, this is a significant blow for the BDO, and particularly their players. The Tony O’Sheas and Darryl Fittons of the darting world have lost two of their most important annual pay days and all of their visibility on Dutch television. Players such as Sean Greatbach and Gary Robson, virtual unknowns in the UK, are apparently treated like pop stars in Holland. Without TV coverage, however, their star will fade, followed by their exhibition bookings and income.

Secondly, this is not the time for either darts organisation to be standing still, let alone regressing. Darts in the UK is booming. Attendances are rocketing, prize money is escalating, and, a little slower maybe, media interest is on the up. The PDC is putting on more tournaments, ITV has signed for another three years of the Grand Slam, Eurosport has increased its coverage, and Setanta is also apparently on the look-out for broadcast opportunities. But there is no news from the BDO.

And that, perhaps, is the strangest point about recent developments. It would be wrong to criticise the BDO for ‘losing’ the IDL and WDT. It wasn’t to blame, and there was little or nothing it could have done to prevent the tournaments collapsing. But this disintegration was hardly surprising, so where are the BDO’s plans for the future? Why haven’t new tournaments been announced? Why is there not even a sniff of discussions and plans in the ether of the darts forums? There are still only three tournaments a year on UK terrestrial television, and they all take place between October and January. There is clearly room for more – how about a BDO-run tournament with invitations extended to some PDC players. Where is the initiative? Where is the fight to keep their players?

At a time when the PDC is doing its best to push darts on Sky Sports towards saturation, the BDO simply appears to be on a different wagon to the band. And if it doesn’t get a move on, darts second gold rush may be over.

Unless developments are revealed this year, the BDO will lose further players to the PDC, and even more credibility. It still, of course, has its jewel – a contract with the BBC until 2010 for the Lakeside World Championships, the most watched week of darts in the UK. Unless things change, however, there will come a time when even the most ardent BDO-sympathiser will be unable to describe the Lakeside tournament as a genuine World Championship without their fingers crossed behind their back. And if the contract with the BBC should ever be brought into question, it wouldn’t take a Dutch court case to resolve the arguments between darts’ governing bodies once and for all. The collapse of the BDO would end the longest of battles much sooner than anyone ever anticipated.

And, almost on cue, over the weekend of April 5th, the BDO announced a five tournament deal with Setanta Sports, running from May to September 2008. The BDO’s portfolio of televised tournaments has jumped from two to seven, fantastic news for BDO players. Announcements of prize monies will be awaited with interest.