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Stuck In The Middle: Darts

Despite Recently Added Glitz and Hoopla, Darts in Britain Remains a Sport of Accuracy, Smoke and Beer
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

With a smoky haze shimmering in the spotlights, Birmingham, England's Aston Villa Leisure Centre resembles Madison Square Garden in an old fight film. The master of ceremonies plays to the mood. "Lad-i-e-e-e-s and gentlemen," he begins, dragging out the words in bald-faced imitation of a ring announcer. The 32 video screens behind him flicker with color, and--as if the fumes from innumerable cigarettes and cigars aren't atmospheric enough--a smoke machine cranks out a billowing cloud. "From Peterborough," the emcee says, "the England captain...Martin Adams." The crowd parts and a paunchy, bearded man in a formless white shirt with his name stenciled on the back parades to the stage, a TV camera keeping pace.

"And now...the five-time world champion...'The Power'...Phil Tay-y-y-lor." Lights flash and a rap song by C & C Music Factory thunders throughthe sound system: "I got the power!" The crowd, seated in plastic folding chairs at metal tables, applauds mightily. Taylor, a thickset man with a tidy mustache, bounds up the steps and onto the stage, looking like a bloated Dan Aykroyd. The lighting man pounds his toggles like legendary keyboardist Billy Preston. The smoke machine erupts again.

This is professional darts, as stage-managed by Rupert Murdoch's Sky Sports television network. It is not, the darts people take pains to remind you, the familiar pub setting you'd usually associate with the sport, but a new brand of packaged darts entertainment aimed at a new following. "Darts comes with a lot of baggage," admits Dick Allix, the tournament director of the World Darts Council, one of the sport's two feuding governing bodies. "If you wanted to write a profile of someone who wouldn't appeal to advertisers, you'd probably come up with the stereotypical darts supporter. That's the stereotype, mind you. But you can see that there's more to darts than that."

Sky is trying to grab the world market with a dressed-to-kill version of the sport, orchestrated for the living-room viewer. Starting this year, Sky's televised darts will hit the United States, where 75,000 throwers and 250 annual tournaments are sanctioned by the American Darts Association. "That is the great untapped market," intones Allix, who plans an August telecast from Caesar's Palace as the U.S. debut of darts-as-spectacle, which bears the same relationship to traditional tournament darts that a football half-time show does to the Boston Pops.

Still, when the music stops, you get the same game you find at the pub. You can put a darts tournament in the Leisure Center's multipurpose auditorium hall ("The perfect venue for weddings & parties, dinner dances, skittles and shows," boasts the promotional literature), in the midst of the tangle of turnpike intersections that is England's second-largest city, but the arena will always take on the atmosphere of a pub, only with longer lines for the restrooms. You can't tell on TV, but the darts throwers feel right at home.

For this event, smoking is not only allowed but encouraged; ashtrays are filled to overflowing and the emcee periodically announces that the sponsoring cigarette brand is available at reduced prices. Mixed drinks are sold in the back, along with oceans of lager. Linda Jones, a huge woman who will eventually win the women's competition here, walks the floor with a plastic cup of beer. Earlier, Julian Bullock won his Round of 16 match and marched straight up to the VIP lounge for a frothy glass. "The darter has to drink," states Keith Talent, the dart-obsessed protagonist of Martin Amis's novel, London Fields. "Has to. To loosen the throwing arm. Part of his job."

In 1993, at the World Championships outside London, 16 of the top British Darts Organization throwers sat around a table to plan a revolt. The sport's popularity was waning, down to a single televised tournament a year from a high of 11 in the mid-'80s because of inept marketing, and fewer and fewer throwers were able to make a living playing darts. "It had to be done," says Phil Taylor.

So the rebels split off from the BDO to form the World Darts Council, player-run like the pro tennis tours. They were promptly banned from BDO tournaments, barred from competing for their country and denounced by the darts establishment, but they didn't look back. Taylor now earns six-figure prize money every season and, with little else to do, practices four hours every day. The BDO's Martin Adams, by contrast, worked as a computer programmer for 22 years and only lately has earned enough to devote his full energies to the sport.

Even as they play the Birmingham match, talk of lawsuits to remedy the situation is rampant in darting circles. In the months that follow, the arguments from the WDC and BDO will, in fact, be heard in British courts. In the final days before a judgment is scheduled to be made, representatives of the two organizations would announce that they have reached, in effect, an agreement to agree, the details of which would be resolved later. It would all sound very hopeful, that an era of open competition would soon be at hand. But all that is in the future, and a long way from the smoke-and-lager atmosphere of the Aston Villa Leisure Centre.

In the meantime, the darting audience has split between the warring factions. The controversy rages on the letters page of Darts World, the seminal darting monthly. "As the majority of the WDC's players came through the early stages of their professional careers, the BDO shamefully disregarded their talent and now have deservedly lost them," writes 17-year-old Mike Woodhead of Upton-by-Chester, Cheshire, in a recent issue. One column away, Phil Jones of London put a pox on both houses, saying that "the players could have nullified any problems years ago by saying 'I'm a dart player not a politician, and I want to make my own decisions about where and when I play.'...I still can't see the sense in it."

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