Can Darts Score a Bull's Eye in the U.S.?

Ever since the World Series of Poker took the United States by storm a few years ago, media and sports moguls everywhere have been searching high and low for the next great American spectator sport.

Come next month, ESPN and a motley crew of British and American dart players think they’ll have scored a bull’s eye.

“We’re talking like Major League Baseball, football and hockey,” said Glenn Remick, the self-described “commissioner of darts” and president of the American Darters Association, based in St. Louis, Mo.

But before anyone makes plans to sharpen their Unicorns (a brand of darts), smooth out their flights (the “feathers” of a dart) and start a tailgate party at the nearest English-style pub, the critical dates to watch are May 19-21.

That’s when the World Series of Darts is being held at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. More importantly, that’s when ESPN cameras will be on the scene, recording what could be the birth of a new all-American television pastime — or perhaps just another low-rated show with the mass appeal of bowling.

Like bowling, darts has a long and storied history, supposedly beginning as the way English archers practiced their skills before a battle.

Though an estimated 18.5 million dart players enjoy the game recreationally in the U.S., it’s always remained a niche sport compared to pastimes like pool.

In the United Kingdom, however, it’s long been something of a national pastime, elevating itself to
the level of a national craze about a decade ago.

That’s when a group of the country’s top players, dissatisfied with the size of the prizes and acclaim they were getting, formed themselves into the Professional Darts Corporation, allied themselves with subscription television and gussied up a game that until then may have seemed to a stranger to have consisted of a series of overweight barflies in stained shirts and polyester pants lining up in a crowded pub to throw pins at a round cork board a little under 8 feet away.

"We added a bit of razzmatazz to darts,” said Matthew Porter, spokesman for the Professional Darts Corporation. It’s a bit like [World Wrestling Entertainment] with a different result. We go into the banging music, the big lights, showing off the crowd. The players have fancy nicknames and in general act like showmen.”

And it worked. Over the last six years, darts has become inescapable in the United Kingdom, with your average pub denizen able to rattle off the records and biographies of the top players, and to recount the bad blood between some of them.

Subscription to the televised events is in the millions, and the top players earn over 1 million pounds (about $1.75M) a year in prizes and endorsements.

Even relatively low-level games with professional players are popular spectator sports, with sell-out crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 crowding into a pub to watch their favorites shoot it out at the boards.

“They come to watch the games and get drunk out of their heads and have the greatest time imaginable,” Porter said.

So it may have seemed a no-brainer to ESPN when Barry Hearn, a major British sports promoter and the chairman of the PDC, and Michael Davies, the producer who owns the American rights to originally British shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, came to them with a deal to televise a World Series of Darts to take place in the United States, with the top 16 British players facing off of America’s 16 best darters.

And to sweeten the deal for the Yanks, if an American wins, he or she will take a $1 million prize. Any non-American will get $100,000 instead.

Hearn and Davies were dangling the sweet promise of another potential Texas Hold ‘Em, and ESPN bit. According to Bob Yalen, director of sports and entertainment at Mohegan Sun, the seating in the 350-person cabaret, where the event will be held, is already sold out, and there will be 13 cameras to catch “every dart thrown.”

For dart players in America, who have long been tired of toiling away at boards in the dingiest corner of their local watering hole, it was the biggest thing to happen to them since they hit their first triple 20.

Remick, whose organization is independently trying to arrange its own televised events, sees the ESPN coverage as a make-or-break event.

“Once you’ve done all the things we’ve done, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get on TV — when you get ratings and a groundswell of the American public behind you. But it can’t happen unless you have a program to plug into,” he said.

“What’s going to happen [in May] boils down to one word: ratings. I hope the Mohegan Sun event is going to accelerate things and get the media back to me. If the public grasps this series like they did with poker, then this is putting me in the fast lane.”

But there are plenty of people who say that you can’t compare darts to poker, which made it to the top of the American consciousness thanks to a confluence of events, including the innovation of the “lipstick” camera, which clued viewers at home to the players’ hands and revolutionized the game.

“They’ve done a ton of things to make darts seem more exciting, but it’s wrong to think of it as the next poker,” said NPR reporter Mike Pesca, who hosts a podcast called “On Gambling.” “Poker’s a psychological game, almost more like an episode of ‘Law & Order’ than it is like a sport. You’re on edge to see the drama. But the drama with darts is if you’re going to hit a bull’s eye. Honestly, darts, dominoes, the lumberjack competitions, could they be the next poker? No they can’t. All it’ll be is a quirky little niche enterprise.”

Remick and Porter say that what might prove most attractive to Americans in this age of
steroids-enhanced Olympians and multimillionaire soccer players is the fact that darts is perhaps the most democratic of games.

It doesn’t require a lifetime of physical training or preparation, a trove of equipment and medical improvements or government or corporate funding to be on your way to becoming the best dart player in the world. All it takes is a steady hand, a good eye and talent.

“I was working as a builder in Colchester three or four years ago — a construction worker as you’d put it,” said 32-year-old Colin Lloyd, the top-ranked dart player in the world. “Basically, the building work was feeding my habit of darts, earning me a wage when I couldn’t quite make it. On weekends I’d go to tournaments and started getting a little better until I had a decent sponsorship. I concentrated fully on darts two and a half years ago.”

Lloyd’s American counterpart might well prove to be Joseph Chaney, a 31-year-old welder from Soddy Daisy, Tenn. He took up the game three years ago in the bar across the street after he’d quit drinking and found himself bored with pool. A bartender named Moe — yes, Moe — lent him some darts, and Chaney proved to be a natural.

Now he’s hoping that he’ll make it to the final game of the Mohegan Sun event, which he says will help him get himself some sponsorship — and a world championship.

“I may be the longest shot, but I have a better chance than the rest of them,” Chaney said. “The Brits, they have nothing to lose. When I’m throwing at the line, there’s no telling what’ll happen.”