Doing a 180: What can darts tell us about the economic recovery?

By Sam Packer, media campaign manager

The pool stage of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC)’s Home Tour concluded this week. It is a sign of our times that “Home” does not refer to a domestic, Britain-based competition but literally to players’ homes. With darts events, like all other live sports, suspended in March, the PDC set up an alternative in the form of the web-cam based Home Tour, with players competing via a scoring app over webcams. 

This sort of ingenuity is not new in the darts world. Indeed, it has been a hallmark of the game since the PDC was founded as a breakaway from the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in January 1992, and especially since sports promoter Barry Hearn became the majority stakeholder in 2001. As tends to be the case with major advances, market disruption was the source of darts’ transformation. That point should be remembered as the country ponders how best to recover from the upcoming corona-inflicted recession. As our chief executive John O’Connell makes clear, the last thing we need is enterprise-crushing tax rises. For the country to advance from this terrible crisis, it will need to harness the power of economic growth via innovation and entrepreneurship. Darts could prove an unlikely and unexpected source of inspiration for chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

Before the PDC, darts struggled for a position in the sporting landscape, with just the World Championship televised each year and players performing in small clubs to paltry crowds. In the past twenty years, the sport has been transformed into a megalith. Top players are earning millions of pounds each year when until the mid 90s there wasn’t enough more to support more than a few full-time professionals. The prize money for the world championship is £2.5 million; in 1993 it was £128,000. From one televised tournament, the sport now has five major multi-week tournaments and a 15 week premier league. It’s popular enough to hold at an at-home webcam tournament! Unlike many other sports, it has found a way to keep going during this crisis. 

So what changed? The PDC was the first effort to properly commercialise the game. The top players wanted to earn more money, but they understood that for that to happen they needed more people to watch. So in came glamour, lights, atmosphere, alternate formats of the sport and the world’s best players playing against each other on a regular basis. Rather than simply accepting their annual allocation on a terrestrial station, the PDC engaged satellite sports channels and money poured into the game, because it was apparent to television companies that people would pay to watch. 

Contrary to the stereotype about money in sport being a great evil, the success of darts is a fantastic case-study in demonstrating that consumer power and competition means everyone - players, owners and most importantly fans - wins. There is a false dichotomy drawn by some that the choice for sport is money or soul. The reality is that sport makes more money by being better; by addressing the soul according to supporters. In darts, it is the “original” (less successful) governing body, the BDO, that has been beset by administrative battles and accused of abandoning its spiritual home

The only way any sport, like other forms of entertainment, can profit is by getting people watching. So when the market works properly, there is a massive incentive to improve the game, in order to get more people watching. We have previously looked at how the introduction of consumer power into the previously amateur-only rugby union has been a massive win for players and fans alike

In the early 1990s, darts was struggling. Despite huge interest in the game, with millions of players across the country, it lacked media coverage, television time and international appeal. So they formed a separate organisation where this might be possible. The public enjoyed what this organisation provided, so they paid for tickets and to watch it on television - good news for fans. This brought more money into the game - good news for players and owners. Even better, this led to more people wanting to play and a surge in standards, resulting in a better product that even more people wanted to watch. The increasing popularity meant more and more sponsors and television companies wanted to get involved. This transformation largely mirrored that of World Snooker in the 1980s, another popular but under-supported traditional English game taken on by Barry Hearn. 

The growth of darts, especially since 2001, would not have been possible without satellite television sports channels. Darts took off in large part because it was able to get large-scale coverage on Sky Sports, coverage that simply was not possible when television was limited to a few channels whose content was determined by controllers rather than the public via consumer pressure. If all sport was still limited to terrestrial providers, and especially the BBC, then there would still be just a few televised darts matches a year and the game would be largely unprofessional. 

As we aim to restart the British economy, it is worth considering how ingenuity and innovation have created most of our favourite things, top-quality darts included. Creative steps like the PDC’s Home Tour show how free enterprise can adapt, even during terrible, restrictive periods. As with supermarkets, who have coped well in this crisis, we must capture this go-getting spirit for our post-virus recovery. If we can create the sort of entrepreneurial environment which can harness this enterprising spirit, the British economy will have hit the bullseye.

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