‘Dart and Soul’ from Scotsman. The heady world of the Professional Darts Corporaton, as seen from Aberdeen.
AN XXL-sized Hawaiian shirt and matching Bermuda shorts, boasting colours seldom seen outside of Reactor One at Torness, are not the easiest garments to procure in the humble shopping thoroughfares of Aberdeen, especially when spring has only begun to rear her head.
But nor, incredibly, are they the most obscure. That hallowed status, Big Deek concurs, is reserved for size-11 fluorescent pink plastic flip-flops. A factory worker from Peterhead with the complexion of a stewed teabag, Deek has been drinking for eight hours. It proves sufficient time for him to realise he is in love with his footwear. “I got them aff eBay,” he slurs. “Four pound. Bargain, naw? Ah ‘hink so. Comfy too, an’ a’. But ma wife says I’m kippin’ oan the couch when I get back in.”
Deek will not be the only one. Tonight only, it is excess all areas in the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), as the Whyte & Mackay Premier League Darts contest rolls into town.
At one sprawling table, seating two dozen revellers – each with at least two pints of lager – Fred Flintstone, a ginger Mexican, a band of Forres vikings, and a gaggle of bearded monks let rip the bawdiest of roars. “Come on, Phil, f*****g kill him!” bellows Fred.
One of the Vikings clambers atop his seat, whooping and cheering. The monks, meanwhile, break their vow of silence with great aplomb, screaming the unprintable.
To their left, a short, middle-aged man in a blue shirt marches stoically down a red carpet. He is surrounded by four burly security guards, and a three-strong camera crew. High above, a giant projection television magnifies his squat, podgy features. Forks of CGI-rendered lightning crash down around his image, while crunching guitar chords blare from the speakers. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor may look like the sort of man who ekes out a living furtively selling snakes and terrapins in the backrooms of downtrodden public houses with wallpaper the colour of the inside of a teapot. His entrance, however, need leave no-one in doubt – this 48-year-old former sheet-metal worker is a multimillionaire sports star.
Yes, the S word, once as readily associable with the oche as customer service was with British Airways. It may be a game which asks minimal physical exertions of its competitors, but if we are to assess it using modern guidelines – namely money, audience share and broadcasting rights – then darts is indubitably a sport, and a successful one at that.
The AECC has drawn a sell-out crowd of 3,400, the vast majority of them young men. The average age of an audience member at a darts event is now 25, compared to 45 just five years ago. There are also couples and a sizeable female contingent in the hall, an example of the top-end auditoria darts now calls home. On the walls of its cavernous corridors are posters for the usual inhabitants of such venues: James Blunt, Katie Melua, Boyzone and Shayne Ward. What was once a working-class anachronism, it seems, has become classless entertainment.
That, at least, is the party line in Barry Hearn’s camp. An esoteric promoter with an eye for profit, it was Hearn who catapulted snooker into the mainstream consciousness in the 1980s. At the helm of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), he is presiding over the revival of yet another bar-room pastime. The tourney has a prize fund of £340,000, with the eventual champion taking home nearly a third of the pot. Even the overall loser will pocket a handsome £20,000.
“The only secret to making darts a success is remembering it makes for a bloody good night,” he says. “I promote it because I’m a fan. It’s about entertainment. People have a good time and get involved. It’s like American wrestling. Or pantomime. You can’t do that with any sport. I’d rather stick cocktail sticks up my nose than watch F1.”
At the AECC, the Bacchanalia is in full swing. The venue will shift around 30,000 pints of lager, and the PDC will further line its coffers courtesy of a merchandising stall, where manufacturers have trademarked the game’s many idiosyncrasies. Replica shirts bearing the legend “Bellies and Bulleyes” prove popular, as do the PDC teddy bears, piggy banks, and, yes, torch fridge magnets.
The real entertainment, though, is taking place on the red carpet of the oche. Taylor is in full flow, dominating his match against 23-year-old Adrian “Jackpot” Lewis. The crowd are divided. Some laud the performance of the 13-time world champion; others, fortified by drink, jeer. Taylor, though, raises his game once again and scores five 180s in the space of a few minutes, a feat which wins over the Aberdonians. With a three-dart average of 103, he sees off Lewis by eight legs to three, before strolling off the oche contented.
Moments later, Taylor finds himself alone in a sprawling corridor backstage. All is quiet here; only the odd Geordie or Cockney sound-engineer milling around in search of coffee. Taylor, though, is unfazed when I approach him, and offers a humble account of the game he has ruled for more than a decade.
“I’ve seen the game change altogether since I started out. It’s constantly changing, and for the better,” he says. “It’s amazing what darts has now. There’s more money, bigger sponsors, bigger venues, better equipment and nicer gear,” he adds, tugging at his shirt. He has no intention of retiring. “I love it, I just love it. I’ll die up on the stage one day, I think. I’ll just fall down and collapse. But I’ll be happy.”
As the action begins again, Peter Manley takes to the red carpet. He revels in an equally bombastic entrance, even if the camera crew are forced to work a little harder to keep him in frame. Manley’s nickname is “One Dart,” but, in truth, “Five Courses” would be more apposite. His frame smothered by a pink shirt, he treats the crowd to a surefooted dance to the tune of (Is This The Way To) Amarillo. Quite how all this transfers to television, God alone knows.
It is the job of Dave Clark and his two-dozen odd crew – which includes Eric Bristow, one of the game’s 1980s stars, who performs mathematical calculations to work out where the next dart will be thrown – to ensure this frenzy makes for good viewing. “It’s a cross between a German beer festival and a gladiatorial arena,” he jests.
The anchorman of Sky’s darts coverage for several years, he has lost none of his sense of amazement. With viewers in their millions, the game, PDC organisers claim, is now the second-most watched sport on satellite after top-flight English football. “All the players have great, strong identities, very well branded,” Clark adds. “And they’re such down-to-earth guys, too. This afternoon, Peter Manley realised he’d left his favourite shoes behind. He phoned a mate who drove all the way up here with them.”
Not a trick is missed in the television coverage. Adrian, Sky’s sound engineer, explains that five mics along hang by the dartboard itself. When a flight lands, the noise is compressed so as to suggest the sound of a crossbow. There are 25 further microphones hung around the AECC to pick up every holler, even if half must be subsequently censored. It is a challenge, Adrian adds, comparable with “juggling custard”.
The night rolls on, and games come and go. No-one can quite rival Taylor, who reclaims his position at the top of the league. By 10:30pm, the last flight has been thrown, and the crowd, sufficiently sated, roll into coaches, buses, and taxis, Hawaiian shirts fluttering in the cold wind. The PDC crew and the Sky workers begin to dismantle the stage. By 3am, they will be gone, already working out the plans for their next leg in Liverpool.
The darts fraternity are too busy, too happy, to care about the debate over whether their game is a sport or not. Healthy profits are being made, record crowds are leaving satisfied and the players seem humbled at their new status. Whatever characteristics make sport great, many could learn a thing or two from those who walk the oche.