Opinion: Does darts deserve more respect as a sport?
Few sports are derided quite like darts. The outlandishly dramatic WWE too has its critics, but many consider it more of a sport than firing arrows at a board. Do Phil Taylor and co deserve more respect?
Many arguments surrounding on the merits of the sport made famous by Phil 'The Power' Taylor centre on whether darts is actually a sport at all.
Regardless of whether you think it should become an Olympic sport, or if you are in the school of thought that believes it is nothing but raucous entertainment for beer-fuelled revellers with a dabble of Sky Sports razzamatazz, it must be noted that it is indeed a sport. So says the Oxford dictionary.
A sport is "an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment."Darts is an activity – even at a stretch and it is most certainly entertainment.
The game has come a long way in a short period of time. The bitter fall-out between the BDO and PDC saw the latter undergo a huge facelift thanks to the cash injection and media exposure of the Rupert Murdoch empire. The image of heavy-set players playing in front of small groups in grubby environments is a thing of the past, for the PDC at any rate.
While some of the players retain the frames of players from yesteryear, darts now appeals to a younger audience. TV ratings have improved dramatically and various venues, including the O2 in Dublin, sell out during the Premier League season. We are familiar with the nicknames, revellers in the crowd enjoy the pantomime of the event and the glamorous walk-on ladies add to the party atmosphere.
But at what cost is this to the reputation of the game?
Phil Taylor, the 16-time World Champion (yes, 16 times) and the greatest player to ever thrown tungsten in competitive anger, admitted that he found the World Grand Prix in Dublin "a nightmare" where he was booed for a number of uncharacteristic missed doubles.
"A lot of it’s to do with betting," he acknowledged. For paying punters used to chanting and singing throughout while the cream of the crop battle onstage where the margins are millimetres , firing broadsides at such a decorated player is deemed par for the course.
Read more: Phil Taylor: Ireland was a nightmare
Taylor has admitted he would love to see darts become an Olympic sport, though media ridicule may be enough a deterrent to ensure that scenario doesn't happen.
The International Olympic Committee have confirmed that it will not happen until 2024 at the earliest, but well-respected figures from other sports have thrown their weight behind the push.
After watching Taylor clinch his 16th PDC World Championship last year, Clive Woodward, Team GB's director of sport, tweeted: "Darts definitely an Olympic sport – look at fans, TV coverage, audience and real skill under pressure."
Those who have suggested that darts is not worth of Olympic status should bear in mind that roller hockey, live pigeon shooting, rope climbing and club swinging have made the cut in the past.
Barry Hearn, the man credited with breathing life into darts as well as snooker – he introduced the Premier League format in both to revive interest – says that it is only "snobbishness" that spoils the perception of the game.
"There are dinosaurs out there that have to embrace the new world and the new demands of the public.
The 'dinosaurs' that Hearn refers to might also be interested in the numbers. In January Michael van Gerwen picked up a cheque for £250,000 for claiming the World title. The final on New Year's Day was watched by 960,000 viewers – more than 100,000 more than saw Southampton v Chelsea on BT Sport. The total prize fund for the tournament was more than £1m.
Since the turn of the century Taylor has earned more than €7m in prize money. The BDO still has pulling power among viewers. Last year's final between Scott Waites and Tony O'Shea was watched by 2.2m people on BBC2.
"What you look at is the dedication that each individual athlete shows and the professionalism and standards they reach," Hearn contends.
It is perhaps the use of the word 'athlete' that may jar for many. Jocky Wilson, one for the first stars of the game died in 2009 after a chronic pulmonary disease. He stopped competing in 1995 after his diabetes prognosis meant he couldn't drink during games. He also reportedly smoked up to 50 cigarettes a day.
Some of the modern-day players too have the physical appearance that old traditions die hard.
Eric Bristow, the five time-World Champions, believes that "darts is drinking" and every player needs the alcohol to perform to the best of their abilities, particularly on the world stage.
"They will all be in the bar downstairs before they go on (at Alexandra Palace)," he revealed in his autobiography The Crafty Cockney.
"They will all be at it. They could all throw without it. Just not that good. It makes you feel more relaxed. The ones that last longer are the ones who keep off the top shelf and keep on the beer."
"They are professional dart players and they are professional drinkers. Many of them you would not know they had had a drink, though I have seen a few of them over the top on stage."
The association with alcohol will naturally play a large part in why the credibility, if not the exposure, of darts fails to improve. For many, it will always remain a pub game, though a lucrative pub game.
Phil Taylor's Olympic dream will not come to pass as he plans on retiring within "two to three years". It may not become a reality for future players either.