Roger Tames joins the crowds enjoying a lively night out at the darts in Newcastle.
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 June 2013
It's hard to think of another sport that would sell out Newcastle's Metro Radio Arena yet nobody could actually see the action taking place in front of them. Then again, a night out at Premier League Darts is quite unlike any other sporting experience.
Because “a night out” is exactly what it is – boisterous, brash and boozy. As one of six thousand raucous fans enjoying the final qualifying round of this 15-week tournament, you follow the matches on one of the huge TV screens slung from the cavernous roof.
Sky Sports coverage is at the heart of professional darts. The top players slug it out in gladiatorial fashion high on a stage at the far end of the arena. The cameras do the rest. The fans are there to provide the atmosphere – and boy, do they play their part.
The darts audience is sophisticated and well versed in the etiquette of the game, never missing their cue to crown the sport’s theme tune of Planet Funk’s Chase the Sun with a fervent ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’.
This passionate outburst of audience participation is made all the more impressive by the need to protect a two-pint plastic bucket of lager from expensive spillage, which at £9 a throw would be a profoundly upsetting experience.
The darts is a lads (and lasses) night out, complete with plenty of fancy dress and an obvious sprinkling of stag nights. A dozen coppers had a groom-to-be Hannibal Lecter in custody just in front of us. Nice. It’s all a sporting world away from the early pioneers of TV darts in the late 70s and 80s, when the drinking (and smoking) was led on stage by players like Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson and John Lowe.
One of the game’s driving forces through so much change is Tommy Cox from Whitley Bay, a former betting shop manager who is now Tournament Director for the Professional Darts Corporation.
Tommy, who played darts for the county himself before managing players, said: ‘In the 50s and 60s, you would get twelve thousand people watching championship darts at Alexander Palace, but they’d all be middle-aged men in flat caps and trilbies who played the game themselves.
‘Now the audience demographic has changed completely. It’s predominantly 20 to 35-year-olds, with more women than you’d expect, all out for a good night. About ten per cent will actually be players, though most of them will have thrown a dart at some time, of course.’
Television, inadvertently in some ways, drove the sport’s progress. Comedy sketches of caricature darts players with memorable names like Fatbelly Gutbucket forced the game to look inwards and change its image. Out went the drinking and smoking on stage.
Once Sky Sports became involved the game never looked back. Now TV ratings regularly beat rugby and even cricket. Live coverage goes worldwide with China the big target market. The modern players like Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld chase million pound prize funds.
The Newcastle audience lapped it all up, especially watching new generation stars like Michael van Gerwen with his rapid-fire, machine-gun style who blew away his opposition on the night.
‘Jocky, Eric and the old stars would be up there still,’ declares Tommy, but points out the rise in standards. ‘The average score has gone up by ten points. Top players need to be averaging more than a hundred every time they go to the board. Phil Taylor has managed 119.’
With blaring walk-on tunes for each player as they enter the fray like heavyweight boxers, accompanied by what my father would have described as glamour girls, darts doesn’t do subtlety.
They are right, though. It is a great night out.