The Championship League – taking darts out of the pub

Why, in a sport in which the fans play such an intrinsic role, has the PDC just organised its’ inaugural tournament staged entirely without fans? And why did it take place in a golf club?

As sports professionalise and grow it is common to hear a concerted cry: “Don’t forget the true fans!” There was horror in England earlier this year at the idea of a 39th Premier League football match being played abroad (although no similar complaints from the 83,226 who turned up at Wembley last Sunday to watch a game of American Football), and the successful transition by any minor sport into the public consciousness always creates a level of alienation with those who like to think of themselves as hard core fans.

There has certainly been some strange goings on at Crondon Park Golf Club in Essex over the last few weeks, where the only drivers on show have been those employed to ferry home the stars of Championship League darts. Another week, another new darts tournament from the PDC. But this one is genuinely innovative.

Squeezed into nine weekdays over the last two months, the format makes the Rugby League World Cup look logical – and may need footnotes from Carol Vorderman – but, in summary, early in September the eight top ranked players in the PDC were invited to take part in the first of eight one-day league tournaments. When seven games per players had been completed, the top four contested semis and a final to find the winner for the day – Phil Taylor.

Having qualified for the ‘Winners Group’ on 23rd October, ‘The Power’ was not invited to play in the second league. Neither – and this is the clever bit – were the two players who finished bottom. So the five remaining players from the first league were joined in a second day of action by the next three players on the ranking list. The process continued until eight group winners had been confirmed from the twenty-nine players who had an opportunity to play – and all this just to see Phil Taylor walk off with the prize after a predictably unbeaten performance in the Winners Group.

The decision not to invite fans to watch the action live appears unique. It is almost unheard of to see sport broadcast without a crowd presence, and the echoes of darts thudding into the board cast minds back to the dark days of empty football stadia, where the silence was permeated only by the shouts of players whose teams had been penalised for their fans bad behaviour.

This development would be unusual for any sport, but for darts – the game with the loudest, largest fans and their witty placards – it was an extraordinary decision. Darts without fans is like ripple without raspberry. They are an intrinsic part of any darts match, key to creating the atmosphere, building the tension, and, on occasions, acting as a fourth dart to their favourite player. Keeping the fans on-side is part of the armoury of a seasoned pro – just ask Peter Manley, Adrian Lewis, Ted Hankey or Mervyn King, all players who, at different times and for different reasons, have seen the vitriol of the paying public impact on their game.

But the event was held during the week. Even darts would struggle to bring in enough fans to create an appropriate atmosphere during office hours. And there are no prizes for guessing why Championship League darts was scheduled at this time. Cash.

So much sport is now controlled by money that it would be unfair to single out darts for criticism – and, in their defence, the PDC hardly tried to mask their intentions. This event was driven entirely by betting. It was only possible to watch the event online via Ladbrokes.com and Bet365.com. Income from ticket sales was replaced by income from gambling – and there were nine working days for those with a penchant for betting to have a daytime flutter.

It is thanks to their innovative approach that the PDC has successfully dragged darts out of the mire and into a new era in which millionaires are made, and players are becoming household names once again. And Adrian Lewis’s 9-darter was brilliant. But Championship League darts was a mess.

The format was horribly flawed. Was the league system just a disastrous response to one man’s dominance? Imagine the IOC adopting a similar structure to improve competition: “So that’s agreed, he’s simply much faster than everyone else, so once he’s won the first heat, we’ll hold seven more without him and then bring Usain Bolt back to win the final.”

Perhaps the hidden agenda was to appease the concerns of some of the less visible top players. Alex Roy, Barrie Bates and Adrian Gray would surely have welcomed the opportunity to earn money and increase their profile, but the format was hardly fair. Mark Walsh claimed a spot in the final coming through a group including Wayne Jones, Andy Smith, Mick McGowan and Wes Newton. Terry Jenkins was eliminated following losses to Taylor, James Wade, Wayne Mardle and Colin Lloyd. This is not a level playing field. Creating a tournament to ensure an easy pay day for those towards the bottom of the top 32 rankings may be just enough to ensure no more talk of defections to the BDO.

Most importantly, however, when a sport holds an event that is aimed primarily at the gambler, it becomes impossible not to question its’ purity. And if the sporting merit is removed, what is the point? Notwithstanding the professional integrity of the players, a significant influx of tournaments streamed solely for betting websites will undoubtedly lead to whispers of betting scams.

Such suspicion can only be increased by the distribution of prize money. Colin Osborne secured his place in the final by defeating Adrian Lewis in Group 5, and took home just under £10,000 from the tournament. By contrast, Lewis failed to reach the Winners Group, but by reaching at least the semi final in six of the leagues, pocketed more than £15,000. The tournament paid out more for the less successful player.

Is this the future? Does the PDC believe that online betting is the formula which will ensure darts’ continued growth? Is this payback for the numerous tournaments sponsored by the bookies? Is cutting out the paying real-life spectator the answer to the next blip in the popularity of darts?

Barry Hearn is not stupid. The tournament may well have resolved several difficult issues bubbling under the surface at the PDC, and internet streamed tournaments designed mainly for betting may disappear. But it is difficult not to wonder exactly what sort of monster has been created.

Darts’ last downfall, towards the end of the 1980s, was prefaced by a saturation of indistinguishable and meaningless tournaments, a confusing mess in which both the players and the supporters were forgotten. There is something ominous about darts without fans. It can only be hoped that Championship League darts is not Barry Hearn’s Frankenstein moment.

Eric Bristow famously stated that you can take darts out of the pub. But that doesn’t mean you can put it in a golf club.

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