Seeking the formula for the BDO Grand Prix

September 29, 2008

The inaugural BDO International Grand Prix reached a conclusion on September 20 with Scotland’s Gary Anderson the worthy winner of the £12,000 first prize. Currently number 1 in the World Darts Federation rankings, ‘Dreamboy’ reached the final of four out of the five tournaments in the series, further evidencing why he is amongst the contenders to succeed Phil Taylor as the genuine world number 1.

The only surprise, to those viewing on Setanta Sports, was that he lost three of those finals – to Scott Waites, Ross Montgomery and John Henderson, at the BDO Gold Cup, British Classic, and British Open respectively. For anyone at the venues, however, these defeats were a little more predictable.

The Grand Prix series was announced in April. Despite it only taking 17 days to announce and organise a General Election in the UK, it takes about a year to arrange a darts tournament. Calendars for county darts are confirmed up to 12 months in advance, so the ‘series’ which was created was in fact five existing but basically unrelated tournaments.

Darts tournaments are long. Very long. Added interest generated by TV cameras and the associated increase in prize funds ensured record entries at several events, with more than 1,000 players signing up for the Welsh Open. The result was that some tournaments commenced at 10am with the televised element (quarter-finals onwards) concluding around midnight. This is simply too long a day to expect players to continue to perform at a high level – hence some very tired performances from Dreamboy and the other finalists. (In their defence, the standard of some of the finals was still very high; it was the consistency which was occasionally lacking.)
Scott Waites on his way to winning the BDO Gold Cup at Lakeside
Despite their new television partner, the BDO rightly stuck to the pre-determined tournament structures – so the top ranked players joined the competition at the earliest stages. Whether this was an example of Olly Croft and his team at the BDO retaining some integrity, or a response to the furore caused by shoe-horning their favourite players into the televised stages of the World Masters last year, is not known. It ensured, however, that players typically needed to win six or seven matches to just to make the televised stages (at the Masters in 2007 the seeded players needed to win only four games to take home the trophy).

‘Upsets’ happen more often in short format darts – each tournament therefore threw up a new selection of quarter-final players. This was, of course, all part of the plan – at least according to Olly Croft, who pointed out that the series was designed not only to add to ‘the opportunities for all competing players, but also to the enjoyment, unpredictability and excitement for Setanta viewers.’

He was right about the unpredictability. A small wager on Davy Richardson winning the International Open at Brean Sands would have de-crunched a little credit. As would a bet that matches live on TV would include Mark Barilli versus Mick Cookman, Paul Gibbs v Chris Jones, and Kevin Edwards v Stuart Bousfield. These guys can all play darts, and it only takes a couple of wins for a relative unknown to become a new star, but, due to the structure of the tournaments, none of them had the chance to illustrate their star quality more than once.

If Setanta was trying to draw-in the occasional darts fan, too many matches between unknown players, the lack of a coherent link between tournaments, and no opportunity for successful players to return to the screens in a series denouement, would surely prevent it.

As would the atmosphere. For those viewers familiar only with pictures from the big tournaments on the BBC, ITV and particularly Sky, the venues looked flat and empty. With limited public promotion and ticket sales, they were supposed to be full of some of the 1,000 or so players who had lost earlier in the day. Unsurprisingly, by midnight, most had gone home.

This was, of course, a new venture, and these teething problems can easily be resolved. Players tend to stay at the venues for the whole weekend anyway, so the tournaments could be played down to the last 8 or 16 on a Saturday, giving impetus and fresh arms for televised finals on Sunday afternoons. Each event could play a part in qualifying for a finale involving the top 8 or 16, with the full prize fund on offer (more than £30,000 in 2008). Taking results from this year, the top eight would include Anderson, Waites, Montgomery, Gary Robson and Mark Webster, all currently ranked in the WDF top 8, and a line up that should interest any darts viewer. Add in younger talents such as Stuart Bousfield and Dutch player Mareno Michels and an interesting tournament begins to take shape.

But improvements, one hopes, are for next year. The hard-core darts fans care little about atmosphere, seedings, and the concept of a Grand Prix series; they just enjoy watching darts on TV. For years the BDO has been regularly and heavily criticised for lack of development or initiative, so perhaps it’s time to look on the positive side. Five tournaments, five different winners, thirty-two different players on show, and a newcomer to darts’ broadcasting. That’ll do for now.