PDC World Darts Championship: Barry Hearn on how darts could rival golf

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport
Michael van Gerwen with the PDC trophy
Michael van Gerwen won Tuesday's final against Michael Smith 7-3

It's the season. The season of festive flingers, where fired-up fans in fancy dress cheer on arrows aces as darts becomes a sporting focal point.

And after the New Year's Day world-title tussle of the Michaels - Van Gerwen and Smith - there are plans to get even bigger, to become "the new golf", to expand into China.

Here, Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) chief Barry Hearn reveals more, and Rob Cross - a former electrician who became world champion - explains how his life was transformed by the pub game that became a global phenomenon.

The record-breakers

When? 25 May 2018. Where? The home of Schalke 04. The attendance? 20,210. The event? The one-day German Darts Masters, which got the 2018 PDC World Series of Darts under way.

That crowd smashed the previous record for a darts event - the 14,354 who attended the London and South divisional final of the News of the World Championship nearly 80 years earlier.

The first of six global tournaments in the PDC's World Series of Darts, the German showdown was followed by contests in Las Vegas, Shanghai, Auckland, Melbourne and Brisbane, before a season-ender in Vienna.

"I probably wouldn't have visited these places if I wasn't playing darts - I wouldn't be able to afford it," says Englishman Cross, 28. "This is a game where normal grafters can succeed."

It is a world away from the beer-drenched, smoke-filled venues that typified the game in the 1970s and '80s.

Men like Eric 'The Crafty Cockney ' Bristow, who died in April aged 60, the newly honoured John Lowe MBE and Jocky Wilson - or Jackie Wilson to his Top of the Pops friends - were the stars of the BDO World Championship.

Bristow, Bestie and a barbers in tiny Tobermore

But players became frustrated, wanted more power, and Phil 'The Power' Taylor was one of those who helped lead the controversial breakaway which formed the PDC.

Taylor went on to become the game's biggest figure, winning 16 world titles before retiring after losing the 2018 final to the unseeded, unheralded Cross.

'The Power' became a millionaire on the back of his darting success - the big winner from Hearn's revolution.

The big breakaway

Players "gambled everything" as they quit the established BDO, and its World Championship which was broadcast by the BBC for 38 years until 2016.

Eventually the PDC was established, Hearn got involved and - with Sky's backing - a new era began on the oche.

"We concentrated on increased prize money," says Hearn.

"Around 2003 or 2004, I suddenly started seeing overseas sales, interest from companies to sponsor events, the internet was growing. Most of it comes down just to bloody mindedness and hard graft.

"I built a team behind me that felt the same - here is a game that millions play all over the world. They've never really had a sustainable plan which says we are going to be a major global sport."

It is now the second-most watched sport on Sky, after football, plays to sell-out arenas around the world and has hosted 25 world finals.

The game has evolved. Hearn, at 70, may hail from a different generation to the millennials feasting on the boisterous atmosphere of a night at the 'arrers, but he says he is "coming of age".

"We are coming up to nearly a year of not using walk-on girls at our events in the UK," he says.

"When I look at having women in the World Championship - two qualified women played this year - it's probably another step in the sport maturing and growing up into the real world. It inevitably has new rules to it.

"We don't have a women's championship, and the men. There is one championship and it is a level playing field for everyone. It is purely about ability."

Four-time BDO women's champion Lisa Ashton took the opening set against world number 43 Jan Dekker at this year's PDC Championship, before losing 3-1.

"I've watched Lisa, what a player," says Cross. "She can play as well as a man. There is no reason why a woman should be any different to a man."

Anastasia Dobromyslova,and Rob Cross
Bridging the gap: World Championship qualifier Anastasia Dobromyslova with Rob Cross

From electrician to world champion

A sparky who made sparks fly on the oche, Cross encapsulates the new era of darts.

"It's amazing how it happened and things have changed," says Cross, who won his first darts competition - an under-15s tournament - on a Haven holiday in Bognor Regis.

Cross was a debutant last year and beat boyhood hero Taylor 7-2 to pick up the £400,000 winner's cheque.

"I've felt nothing like it. It made me feel inhuman - the adrenaline in the veins. It felt like I was on Cloud Nine. The butterflies made me sharp," he says.

It was Taylor's last professional outing but his 16 titles left a legacy which the next generation are enjoying.

"There's not been many sportsmen who have been so dominant," says Cross. "It was absolutely phenomenal what he achieved.

"I think that helped me. I looked at how ruthless he was and he would do anything to win. If I wasn't in that Worlds, I would have loved to have seen him win it, but it's either you or them.

"If you look at the money in the sport compared to say 15 years ago, it's life-changing. It matters so much now. There is more money on the line and great things to be achieved."

Cross named his first of his three children Leyton after one of those burly pioneers - Welshman Leighton Rees - and the youngster already wants a slice of the action.

"He's darts crazy since watching me on the TV for the first time," says Cross. "He feels everything when I lose - he gets a little bit upset.

"He has a little go and hits the board every time. He says to me: 'Dad, when I get older, I want to be like you.'"

New world order - China in their hands?

Bullseyes in Beijing? Shanghai in Shanghai? (Before you ask, it's a darts phrase for hitting the double, single and treble of the same number).

"I have a clear, concise plan of where this sport is going and that is globally," says Hearn.

"We will see China develop a major darts involvement and there's a lot of people in China."

Nearly 1.5 billion, in fact. And it's a fact not lost on Hearn, who has seen his snooker empire embrace the Far East with players such as Ding Junhui.

"There's a lot of money in China. We are seeing India, Pakistan, Bangladesh picking up darts. We are not a UK sport, we are a global sport and as such we are looking at expanding into north America, to south America, we've opened a small office in China.

"I don't see any reason at all why darts shouldn't be the same size as professional golf."

Barry Hearn
Hearn promoted snooker and boxing before turning his attention to darts

After the PDC event comes the BDO World Championship - the original if now lower-profile tournament - which starts on Saturday.

Mark McGeeney is the top men's seed ahead of two-time defending champion Glen Durrant, while Lorraine Winstanley and Ashton are leading contenders in the women's competition.

Hearn refers to the BDO as the "amateur" branch of the game - the grassroots, if you like.

He had an offer to buy out the organisation rejected, but won't be rebuffed in his mission to take darts even further.

"We have been super successful, but we haven't reached the end game yet," he says.


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