Darts looked distinctly different at the 2018 PDC campaign curtain-raiser, the Masters Championship in Milton Keynes.
But it wasn’t the absence of now-retired multiple world champion Phil Taylor, nor the presence of his newly-crowned successor Phil Cross.
No, it was the decision by the Professional Darts Corporation to stop using walk-on girls with immediate effect.
It was the first time in over 23 years at a televised PDC event that players hadn’t been flanked on their way to the stage by glamorous models.
A statement from the organisers said: “We regularly review all aspects of our events, and this move has been made following feedback from our host broadcasters.”
Walk-on girls have accompanied players to the oche since 1994, just a couple of years after the birth of the PDC in 1992, in its attempt to attract the wider public to the sport with music, glitz and glamour.
Many fans across social media have argued that walk-on girls are therefore part of darts’ tradition and that their role should very much remain.
However, others have rightly suggested that darts has been around for more than just the two decades that the PDC and the walk-on girls have existed, so it’s far from the be all and end all.
A petition addressed to PDC chairman Barry Hearn has since been started in favour of keeping walk-on girls, attracting more than 40,000 signatures.
A tweet from five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld urging the public to sign the petition read: “I will really miss the girls! For me they are a part of the darts. Sign their petition so they can keep their jobs.”
The models also work at other sporting events, including horse racing, boxing, cycling and as Formula 1 grid girls.
However, F1 has followed in the footsteps of the PDC and announced the withdrawal of models from the sport.
In a statement F1’s managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches said: “Over the last year, we have looked at a number of areas which we felt needed updating as to be more in tune with our vision for this great sport.
“While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 grand prix for decades, we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms.”
Leading national charity the Women’s Sport Trust also stated: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation for moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Boxing and cycling… your move.”
As momentum and pressure continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether there is a domino effect which ultimately ends the use of female models in promoting sporting events, but it would come as no surprise should others follow suit.
Down the years, darts has had its fair share of legends. Eric Bristow, Raymond van Barneveld and Dennis Priestley to name a few. However, nobody has ruled the roost like Phil Taylor.
Over the course of a 30-year career, ‘The Power’ has utterly dominated the sport, winning 216 professional tournaments, including 85 majors and 16 World Championships.
On Friday night, however, Taylor will begin his last World Championship and, indeed, last professional tournament at the Alexandra Palace in London.
Being a symbol of the game for so long, it seems scarcely believable to most darts fans that they will never see the 56-year-old play on a live stage again after January.
Not least, Barry Hearn, the chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, who believes the likes of Taylor are from a breed hard to find.
“I think there will be a standard of play higher than what Phil played,” says Hearn, in an exclusive interview with Elephant Sport. “But for someone to dominate the sport the way he did will be extremely difficult.
“You can’t compare him. Look at all he’s won. He’s a unique champion sportsman and I don’t think we will ever see one like him again.”
The growth of darts
In the 1980s, when the likes of Jocky Wilson, Bristow and John Lowe would down pints of beer while playing in front of World Championship crowds numbering only a thousand at the cramped Lakeside, the idea that darts could rise to be a sport watched all over the world, like it is today, seemed far-fetched.
However, since the split from the British Darts Organisation and the creation of the PDC in 1992, aided by Sky Sports, the game has been transformed to a level where the winner’s share at the World Championship now stands at a huge £350,000, and the Premier League, established in 2005 and played all over the British Isles, Germany and Holland, is watched by crowds some nights totalling 12,000.
The group of 16 top professionals, which included the likes of Bob Anderson and Rod Harrington, could surely not have envisaged development on such a scale when they decided to form the PDC all those years ago.
Certainly, Hearn, who became chairman back in 2001 after acquiring a majority shareholding in the corporation, has no qualms in admitting that darts has exceeded expectations.
And he confirms that Taylor, being one of the 16 to make the breakaway and with his magnet-like pull factor, has been at the heart of its progress.
‘Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil’ – Barry Hearn
“Astonished would be the word,” says Hearn, with pride in his voice. “Beyond our wildest dreams. We’ve taken it in our stride. I’d love to sit here and say I saw this development coming, but I didn’t.
“We’re just at the beginning of something special in darts. It’s a British sport played by ordinary people. Every country wants more darts and more TV coverage. It’s all over the world. Dubai and Australia, the list goes on.
“Phil was the flagbearer for us and he’s done an amazing job. That’s for sure. Nobody dominated or led a sport like he has done for 30 years. Arguably, you could say he’s the greatest sportsman ever.”
Life after Taylor
With athletics facing up to life without Usain Bolt, golf struggling to replace Tiger Woods and tennis fearing the day Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal eventually retire, the golden generation of super champions across the sporting world does seem to be nearing an end.
Looking from the outside in, you’d think darts should be equally worried for the future with its greatest ever player retiring. But, on the contrary, Hearn believes darts is well placed to look forward with optimism.
“Without sounding cocky, I think we’ve been a lot smarter than other sports,” says Hearn. “We’ve built a strong infrastructure within the sport.
“The formation of the Qualifying School gives us a chance of getting good young players continuously coming through. You’ve seen that this year with Rob Cross [who has broke into the world’s top 20 in his debut year on tour].
“Michael van Gerwen [current world No.1 and defending world champion] is trying to step into his shoes but there are others as well.
“Overall I think we are in a good place. Premier League ratings are going up and tickets have sold out already for nearly every week next year.
“Its clear people have bought into darts as a game, and not just for Taylor.”
Although, darts has developed tenfold over the last 25 years and is not perhaps reliant on Taylor as it once was, there’s no doubt the legend’s impact on the game and appeal to fans and viewers is still prevalent today.
Whether it is Blackpool, Sydney or London, you only have to be present on a night when Taylor is scheduled to play to realise the unique buzz in the air of the venue.
Hence, you do wonder if it goes without saying that darts will keep the door open for a U-turn in the future.
“Always,” says Hearn. “Frank Sinatra retired 11 times. You don’t close the door on someone like Phil.”
Having clinched the World Matchplay in Blackpool in July for a 16th time, Taylor can already mark his final season down as a success.
But the chance to go out on an all-time high by winning a last World Championship title on the grandest of stages at Ally Pally has to be on the Stoke-on-Trent man’s mind.
The tournament itself is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month and most in the darting world, including Hearn, would see Taylor triumphing as the ultimate tribute.
“The sport owes him a lot that’s for sure,” adds Hearn. “I’m sure it’s in his mind to win it. It would be a great achievement. Everybody would want him to do it.”
The World Darts Championships start on Thursday, December 14th and will be shown live on Sky Sports. For more details and ticketing information, click here.
Jeff Smith insists he and his fellow British Darts Organisation players can “go deep” in this year’s Grand Slam of Darts.
The annual showdown in Wolverhampton (November 12-20) sees the best of the BDO take on the top talent from rival organisation the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).
The winner of the tournament will take home £100,000, the runner up bags £50,000 and the losing semi-finalists will get £25,000 each. Overall the prize fund for the Grand Slam is £400,000, making it the fourth biggest tournament in the world of darts.
Smith stated that this year’s line-up of BDO players at the Grand Slam is “one of the best the organisation has ever brought to the competition” since it began in 2007.
The 40-year old Canadian, who’s been around the darts circuit for a number of years and threw his first dart at the age of just four, is currently flying high in the BDO.
Smith, nicknamed the Silencer, reached the semi-finals of the 2015 BDO World Championship and this year reached the final, losing out to Scott Waites.
The Silencer is now set to make his first appearance at the Grand Slam of Darts and will be joined by seven other BDO players, all of whom are currently in the top 10 of the organisation’s rankings.
This means it is the strongest BDO line up in the history of the competition. Alongside Smith will be:
Scott Waites; former Grand Slam winner and current BDO world champion
Glen Durrant; current BDO number one
Scott Mitchell; former BDO world champion
Martin Adams; three-time BDO world champion
Daryl Fitton; BDO Masters champion
All five men are returning to the Grand Slam stage, while making their debuts are Danny Noppert from the Netherlands and Jamie Hughes from Tipton, both in the top five of the BDO rankings.
“Don’t be surprised if a few of us BDO boys go deep into the knockout stage”
Causing the PDC a problem
As the dart season rolls into its crucial months of major tournaments, Smith is aiming to cause the PDC a headache or two.
“Obviously the talent level is off the charts in this tournament, but don’t be surprised if a few of us BDO boys go deep into the knockout stage”.
The likes of Phil Taylor, Gary Anderson and Michael van Gerwen from the PDC could be up against any of the eight BDO players – a mouthwatering prospect for any darts fan.
The format begins in the Group Stage with a seeded draw from four pools.
Pool A; seeded players from the PDC, this could be Phil Taylor for example. Pool B PDC Automatic Qualifiers, Pool C PDC Qualifiers and Pool D; the boys from the BDO.
2009 was the last, and only time a player from the BDO won the Grand Slam; current BDO world champion Waites.
However, Smith is confident he will have a few of his rivals from the PDC concerned. “I’m just going to focus on my own game; I’d rather it be them having to worry about my game rather than the other way round
“My overall goal is to literally take one leg at a time, try and grind out a place in the knockout rounds and see what happens”.
The Big Stage
The Canadian admitted he “cannot wait” to be up on the stage at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall in November.
“There’s something about playing on a big stage I love”
“To be honest, I can’t wait. I’ve been playing a lot of tournaments recently; my form is in good shape. But there’s just something about playing on a big stage I love”.
Smith has become somewhat of a crowd favourite in the BDO of late, with his distinctive specs and cool attitude as he makes his way to the oche, to the sound of “New Orleans Is Sinking” by Canadian rock band Tragically Hip.
There’s no doubt The Silencer will receive a warm welcome in Wolverhampton from the darts fanatics. “I’ve been very fortunate to have crowd support,” said Smith. “It gives you a sense that you belong on the stage, it definitely helps motivate me”.
Typically, darts is a sport dominated by Europeans, particularly British and Dutch talent. There are only a handful of players outside of Europe who’ve actually made it to the big time, Smith being one of them.
John Part, also of Canada and labelled Smith’s “hero”, is the most successful darts player to date outside of Europe.
‘Darth Maple’ as he is known, has won both BDO and PDC World Championships in a glittering career spanning over 35 years.
Smith did hold a place on the PDC tour at one point, but unfortunately had to give it up.
“The PDC was awesome to play, but unfortunately being based out of Canada with a wife and kids, it makes it impossible to challenge the Order of Merit [PDC world ranking system] properly”.
“The fact that BDO events are available to play throughout North America, makes sense for me to focus on the BDO.
“Canada has several good players, past and present, but for the most part they struggle to cope with the level of the UK play.
“Practice, practice, practice. Get out and support the game by playing”
“Canadian players need to keep on qualifying, exposing our players to the pressure is key” said Smith.
The Silencer added that practice is the key for those up and coming. “Practice, practice, practice. Get out and support the game by playing. Grass roots to the top pros, there is a place for everyone in darts.”
Live coverage of every dart thrown at the Grand Slam will be shown on Sky Sports.
The 24 PDC representatives will include major tournament finalists from the past 12 months and eight qualifiers. The full PDC line-up is soon to be confirmed.