The South African masters from Johannesburg; the World Cup in North Carolina; a man from the Philippines in the semi-final of the World Masters. Is the game of darts finally becoming a world sport?
The numbers would suggest so. Players from more than seventy countries were invited to play in the Masters, thirty-two nations took part in the seventeenth biennial World Cup, and twenty-one nationalities were on show at the last PDC World Championship. From Barbados to Brazil, Iceland to Italy, Turks & Caicos, China, Kenya, Hungary, Japan – all have been represented in world darts in the last year. The BDO/World Darts Federation has always held events throughout the world, but the PDC now holds ranking tournaments in four continents, and for the World Championship has a list of broadcast partners to match any sport – including deals in India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Russia.
At the World Cup there were victories for Australia and the USA in the men’s pairs and women’s singles respectively (the latter courtesy of Stacey Bromberg). Canada were deserving runners up in the Men’s team event, where quarter final losers included Germany and Italy.
The difficulty facing the world of darts, however, is that despite the odd blip, two nations continue to dominate the game beyond belief. Holland’s overall victory was their third World Cup success on the trot. The scores are now England 11, Wales 3, Holland 3, Rest of the World 0. And in the thirty-two years of the BDO World Championship, only John Part and Tony David, for Canada and Australia respectively, have broken the British/Dutch stranglehold of champions.
What both the PDC and WDF would give for another Raymond Van Barneveld – a player to capture the interest of his nation, almost single-handedly transform attitudes towards the sport, create a legacy of interest in the game, and generate that mass TV and live audience that would allow a Major tournament or two to be played there. What Seve did for golf in Spain, and Boris achieved in German tennis – how a new star from, for example, South Africa or China could invigorate the world game, and move darts further out of the British pub and into the world of competitive sport.
For now, the world rankings tell the full story. Of the BDO top sixteen, thirteen are British, while over at the PDC it’s fourteen. Worryingly thirty of the top forty are English.
Darts, of course, is not only sport battling to be adopted throughout the world. Rugby Union still struggles to find more than a dozen teams to make the World Cup competitive, Rugby League even more so. Cricket has just nine countries playing the Test Match version of the game, only two of which – Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – have been recruited in the last fifty years. Even some football nations only became competitive relatively recently – England beat Turkey 8-0 twice in the 1980s, but sixteen years after the second thrashing a scraped 0-0 draw in Istanbul was all that kept the home side from wining the Euro 2004 qualifying group.
In the same manner that the Rugby Union World Cup makes room for teams such as Georgia and Namibia, the savvy response of the PDC has been to introduce an increasing number of international wildcards in the World Championship. Warren French from New Zealand against Akihiro Nagakawa from Japan was a particularly unmemorable preliminary match last December, but logic dictates that this type of experience will not only raise eyebrows in their countries, but also be invaluable for those players. The recent success of Lourence Ilagan in Bridlington must in part be attributable to his appearance in the PDC World Championships nine months earlier.
Darts is the type of sport where players from any country can occasionally have a good run. The issue, however, is that such opportunities for players outside the UK remain severely limited.
And here is the crux of the problem. Most ranking tournaments take place in the UK. Despite vast increases in prize money, sponsor-less British players outside of the upper echelons of the game can barely afford to travel to the copious quantity of events in their own country, let alone abroad – and nothing has yet been shared about the impending Tour Card system to suggest a resolution to the problem.
The issue is magnified proportionately by distance for those players outside the UK. The efforts of the PDC to break America are so far roughly as successful as the attempts of Robbie Williams. Cost prevents many from travelling between states, let alone abroad, and rumours persist that the Las Vegas Desert Classic has had its day. Perhaps it’s time for the PDC to try elsewhere.
Ironically, it is the exponential growth of the PDC in Britain, and the related improved strength in depth of quality players, which is making it even harder for overseas stars to break through. Imagine being given a fixture-list to win the World Championship which required victories over Adrian Lewis, Dennis Priestley, James Wade, Raymond Van Barneveld and Phil Taylor. That’s what faced ‘Australian’ Paul Nicholson last year – who’s only hope for genuine success in world darts is to relocate back to the UK.
Without the emergence of superstars from other countries, or a redress in the balance of where events are held, there is currently no reason to expect a change in the domination of the game. Darts remains a British sport, hijacked regularly and brilliantly by the Dutch.
Brits love to tease their American cousins about ‘World’ Series of sports played predominantly in just one country – theirs. In darts Britain has a sport where home dominance remains many years away from being challenged. Unlike with football, rugby and cricket, for once we’ve invented an activity that others continue to struggle to master. And what a plan to protect our crown jewels: if a foreign player comes along and nicks a world championship, there’s always the other version to cling on to.