New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 14, 2012
The former world champion made his way to the stage, wielding a light saber and flanked by Princess Leia and a posse of Imperial stormtroopers, while the sellout crowd, merry on Christmas cheer and liters of beer, roared in approval.
Over the public address system, "The Imperial March" — Darth Vader's theme — played at ear-shattering volume. The fans, many dressed as Mr. Incredible, pirates, animals or the Jamaican bobsledders from the film "Cool Runnings," had scrawled messages on placards, hoping the television cameras would spot them.
These scenes played out at world championship sporting events in recent years. Specifically, the World Darts Championships.
A game that was once considered merely a bar pastime is now a major industry in Europe. Over the holiday season, Premier League soccer is the only sport that will attract more television viewers in Britain than the Professional Darts Corp.'s World Championship, the higher-quality and better-attended of darts' two world championships.
This year's tournament begins Friday at Alexandra Palace in London, with 72 players from 21 nations competing for $1.6 million in prize money. The winner of the final on Jan. 1 will take home $321,000, crowned as the first world champion of 2013 in any sport.
About 40,000 fans are expected to watch the action in a hall that, with its long tables and endless pitchers of beer, resembles something from Oktoberfest — and they may even be joined by royalty. Prince Harry attended the semifinal two years ago, and Zara Phillips, Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter and an Olympic equestrian medalist, was in the crowd for the most recent final.
A sport that once was, and to a large extent still is, synonymous with the working classes has garnered a much wider social appeal in recent years. Even the writer, broadcaster, actor and Cambridge graduate Stephen Fry has been a co-commentator on Sky Sports' coverage of the dart world's Premier League, the 15-date darts equivalent of an arena rock tour that has progressed from 600-capacity leisure centers to sellout nights at the 10,000-capacity O2 Arena in less than a decade.
As a result of the sport's popularity, orchestrated by the promoter Barry Hearn, the players — who go by nicknames like the Power, the Wizard, Jaws, the Dutch Destroyer and the Bronzed Adonis — now compete for an overall annual prize pool of $8 million.
Aside from the fast-paced action and a strong emphasis on providing fans with an experience to remember, one of the key reasons for darts' mainstream resurgence in Britain after a sharp dip in popularity from its 1980s heyday was Sid Waddell, who, like Fry, was a Cambridge graduate.
Waddell was a commentator with a thick Newcastle accent and a style so irreverent and humorous that he became a bigger star than most of the players. When the Londoner Eric Bristow won the fourth of his five world titles, Waddell ad-libbed: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow's only 27."
Waddell, the voice of the Christmas holidays to generations of sports-mad Brits, died of cancer Aug. 11, the day after his 72nd birthday. The trophy at this year's tournament will be named in his honor.
The game seems poised for continued growth, with Phil Taylor, a 52-year-old former factory worker who has earned more than $8 million in prize money, among a group of elite players capable of earning about $800,000 per year, not including endorsements and exhibitions.
Once burdened by an image of booze-swilling, cigarette-smoking players throwing arrows in dim back-street bars, the sport is creating millionaires. Meanwhile, youth academies, like the one founded by the English professional Steve Brown, are expanding as they teach children how to play the game in a safe and disciplined environment.
"It's getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Taylor, the 15-time world champion, said in an interview shortly before winning the Players' Championship — the 79th major tournament victory of his career — in front of 4,500 fans this month in Minehead, an English seaside town. "I never believed darts could get this big — never. We can go round the world — I honestly believe we can achieve something like golf has. I'm a multimillionaire, so I can't complain, because darts has made me and my family rich; and if you're a talented young player now, there's a very good living to be had from darts."
While television viewers in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand will be able to watch the World Championship live, North America remains an unconquered market.
The Las Vegas Desert Classic was held from 2002 to 2009 but was scrapped, though there are plans to introduce a world tour that would feature a major U.S. event starting in 2014.
Whether the U.S. needs a darts superstar to attract a live television audience, or a live television audience to inspire a darts superstar, is a chicken-and-egg question that elicits debate.
The best North American player, John Part of Canada — the light-saber-wielding Darth Maple — has won three world titles, making him the fourth-most successful darts player in history. Part and the Australians Simon Whitlock and Paul Nicholson are the only non-Europeans among the Professional Darts Corp.'s top 50 players.
"It's not about having a star — I'm a star as far as darts is concerned, but in day-to-day life in Canada I wouldn't be considered a star," Part, of Oshawa, Ontario, said in a telephone interview.
"In my opinion, what North America needs is more live feeds of the big tournaments and the exposure of being on ESPN, because people can't really get into following a sport unless they can watch it," he said. "If I was in charge, I would be getting at least the World Championship semifinals and final on TV over here to get the ball rolling, even if it had to be at a giveaway rate to begin with. But then, it's not my stuff to give away."
North American players seeking stardom also face difficulties, Part said, because most events take place in northern Europe. Darin Young, 39, of White Haven, Pa., is widely perceived as able to compete with the game's top players, but family and business commitments in the U.S. have held him back.
"It is difficult — I have walked the tightrope for 20 years and, fortunately, I haven't been knocked off yet," Part, 46, said. "I think the idea of turning professional is daunting for North Americans because of the costs involved. If you are 35 or 40, are you really going to put your life on hold for a year to give it a shot, especially if you don't know whether you will still have a job when you return? Maybe it is easier for a guy in his early 20s to go and do."
Part and Young are the only two North Americans to qualify for the World Championship. With or without the North Americans, though, the darts party will be in full swing in London this holiday season.