The struggle for column inches

May 2, 2008

An exciting night of darts at Wembley Arena in mid-April saw Phil Taylor and James Wade secure their places in the Premier League play-offs with two games to spare. For Wade, his fourth consecutive victory came in a tense deciding leg against Peter ‘One Dart’ Manley. Taylor’s victory was more decisive, setting a new tournament record three-dart average of 111.75 during his 8-3 destruction of the current PDC world champion, John Part. It was the seventh week running that ‘The Power’ averaged more than 100, and a key night in what has become a compelling tournament.

A brief flick through the sports pages of the British press the following morning gave a clear indication of the importance sports editors place upon the Whyte & Mackay Premier League. Within its thirteen pages of sport, The Daily Mirror managed a thirty-two word article. The Sun listed the scores next to the Speedway results, and devoted three paragraphs to the pep talk Barry Hearn apparently gave ‘Barney’ before his game with Adrian Lewis. By comparison, The Daily Star went dart mad, with sixty-six words in its fifteen pages. The article, however, was buried beneath a piece speculating about the future of basketball player Ben Gordon. The Daily Mail mentioned Taylor’s record, but neglected to list the results of the other matches. It found room, however, for results from the third round mixed doubles at the European badminton championships in Denmark.

The picture in the larger papers was consistent if nothing else. The twenty page Daily Telegraph sport section didn’t mention darts; neither did The Times, The Independent or The Guardian – although the latter had full listings of second and third round results from the badminton, the ice-hockey world championship results (Poland 3 Kazakhstan 4), and scores from the Hurghada International squash tournament quarter finals in Egypt. (For the record, R Ashour from Egypt beat O A Aziz from Egypt 11-5, 11-4, 11-5).

So why is press coverage so limited? Is there a demand for the British public to read about the antics of Wayne Mardle et al over their corn flakes?

It is increasingly clear that people want to watch the game. Darts, it seems, is now officially the second most watched sport on Sky. In the next six months it will be shown live in the UK on more channels than ever before. Terrestrial viewers may have to wait until the Autumn for the Grand Slam and World Masters on ITV and BBC respectively, but before then Sky’s schedule will be full throughout a Summer containing the UK Open, Desert Classic and World Masters, Eurosport will be keeping a close eye on BDO possibilities, and, in the next few weeks, two newcomers to darts broadcasting make their debuts.

Setanta will be kicking off with the Welsh Open on 18th May. The first of the five BDO tournaments they will be broadcasting through to September, the company also has the contract for the much discussed ‘Legends’ series running over eight Friday nights. Bristow, Lowe and Deller are back.

Also over the weekend of 17th and 18th May, Nuts TV will be showing the PDC US Open live, no doubt with many a reference to powerful pairs and double tops. Available on freeview, the audience figures will be watched with interest as yet another broadcaster looks set to benefit from what can only be described as a darts broadcasting boom.

People watching a sporting event on television does not automatically merit inclusion in a newspaper, but public interest must have a bearing on the decisions of editors. As should the size of the crowd who attend an event. Wembley Arena was heaving on 17th April, but that was nothing compared to the 8,000 crowd who turned up at Liverpool Echo Arena the previous week – thought to be the highest attendance at a darts match since before the Second World War. Every sport bar the top two divisions of football would be delighted with a regular crowd of this size (only five League One teams average higher than 8,000 for home fixtures).

But size, it would seem, does not necessarily matter. County cricket attendances are notoriously poor, but full match details and reports remain common – The Daily Telegraph devoted two pages to matches on the same day as ignoring the darts. Earlier that week, the papers happily listed the result and scorers of all four Queens Park goals in their victory over Berwick, watched by a crowd of 325.

If crowds and viewers are not enough to persuade the press to write about darts, then perhaps the issue is one of sporting merit. The Premier League had its teething problems, and was on occasions closer to dartertainment than sport, but since 2007 the format has been robust, and this year the competition has been fierce, unpredictable, and consistently exciting.

Maybe it is the game itself which precludes significant coverage. The question of image remains a problematic one, but it isn’t the role of newspapers to define what constitutes a sport – that exercise was completed by UK Sport in 2005. The broadsheets do report the World Championships, so must accept the principle of darts being worthy of sports reporting. And if there were concerns about the lack of cardiovascular exercise involved in the game, then the logical conclusion would be to omit coverage of snooker, shooting or golf.

Which leaves two possibilities. Either the print media, in particular the broadsheets, are still struggling to embrace a game that was born in the pubs and clubs of working men. Or, put simply, they’re missing a trick.

There is a substantial and growing audience from a wide section of society with an appetite to read about darts. (Further evidenced, if it needs be, by the plethora of darting websites and forums). It is undeniable that people in the UK care more about darts than badminton from Denmark, the Kazakhstan ice-hockey team, or Egyptian squash players. But even with pages to fill this summer due to the lack of a British representative at Euro 2008, it is unlikely that this appetite will be whetted. Darts is booming like never before, but someone forget to tell the press.