LONDON, UK — They’re escorted into the arena like gladiators, competitors at the apex of their sport, bellies straining against their collared nylon shirts. When they raise an arm of acknowledgment, a crowd of thousands screams for more.
Taking their places at the capital’s Alexandra Palace, they know their every grimace and exaltation will be captured by television cameras and beamed live into living rooms and bars across Britain, Germany, Thailand, Australia and beyond.
Meet the men who play darts for a living.
The very best of them end the year here at the World Darts Championship, a two-week seeded tournament that crowns a champion from 72 of the world’s top players.
Since its debut in 1994, the championship has morphed from a low-budget sideshow into an international television spectacle.
For certain viewers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, it holds the same campy appeal that showpieces such as the World Series of Poker have for American fans.
In Britain, darts is the second-most watched sport on satellite television after professional soccer. Top players amass cultish fan followings. There was even a short-lived reality show in the mid-2000s called “Darts’ Players Wives.”
The appeal, fans say, lies in its accessibility. The rarified air that surrounds big-name professional athletes doesn’t exist in darts. It’s a game played in bars by guys who even at the highest levels maintain the physiques of guys who play darts in bars.
“You don’t have to be a superhuman Spartan like you do in most sports,” said Matthew West, 55, from his seat at the semi-final Monday night. “You can go down to the pub. You can play by yourself. You don’t need to buy thousands of quid of equipment.”
The chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation also knows something about working men’s aspirations.
Barry Hearn grew up in east London public housing. Today, the 65-year-old is one of the biggest and brashest sports promoters in Britain. His company, Matchroom Sports, specializes in turning games typically played by guys with beer — darts, snooker, ping pong, fishing — into televised spectacles.
“These guys here can associate with those guys there,” he said, gesturing from the fans to the stage, “because they are them.”
It’s not just about the game: There’s money to be made in darts, life-changing money. A $414,000 prize awaited the winner of the Professional Darts Corporation championship final, always played on New Year’s Day.
The tournament’s top finishers are eligible for selection to the Premier League, an elite circuit of ten players whose annual earnings can run to millions of pounds.
Titles almost always go to British players, who are to darts what Chinese athletes are to table tennis. In its 21 years of existence, the championship has been won 17 times by a Brit.
Fourteen of those titles have gone to a single man, Phil Taylor, who’s dominated the game for the last two decades the way Michael Jordan owned basketball in the 1990s.
He arrived at Alexandra Palace as the defending champion, having felled Dutchman Michael van Gerwen in 2013.
But all dynasties must fall. Taylor went out Dec. 20 during the tournament’s second round in a shocking upset by the world’s number 32, Michael Smith.
Smith, in turn, was knocked out by the Peter “Snakebite” Wright, a Scotsman who describes himself on his Twitter account as a “proud house husband” and father of three.
On Monday, the 43-year-old bounded on stage at the semi-final to screams from a sold-out crowd of 2,400, galloping across the dais with fists pumping in the air.
Wright plays with a rainbow Mohawk and a hissing viper painted on his skull. He wore a sparkling purple shirt and polka-dotted pants.
He told the Daily Mirror that he has visited a hypnotherapist for help with his nerves.
The crowd ate him up. It also loved his opponent, a goateed and mulleted Australian named Simon Whitlock. The same roar rose from the floor when either man won a leg or a set or threw a 180 — the highest score possible in a single turn.
The championship attracts an enthusiastic and overwhelmingly male crowd. Fans chanted. They waved homemade signs. They wore matching group costumes: Smurfs, elves, farm animals, Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas.
That’s partly because getting on camera at Alexandra Palace is as much of a sport as the darts. When men in the stands dressed as Pokemon spotted themselves on the big screen, they screamed.
Beer helps fuel the fun, $2 million worth of it typically sold during the tournament’s 16 days, a venue worker said.
“It’s awesome!” shouted Hannes Medejczyk, 24. The student was one of six friends who had traveled from Berlin for the championship. Clutching plastic pint cups of beer, they wore full-body plush animal costumes. Medejczyk was a bear.
“It’s a bar sport,” he said, explaining the appeal. “You go in a bar, throw a few darts — it’s awesome. We’ve met so many people.”
Barry Hearn stood alone against the wall observing the action dressed in a pinstripe suit and the same black-and-silver tie worn by the security staff.
Someone on stage threw a 180. The crowd leapt to its feet. Hearn grinned.
“It’s like watching a child that you brought up grow up and become a proper human being,” he said of the championship.
The tournament took on its current glitz after Hearn took over the Professional Darts Corporation in the late 1990s and injected it with cash. The prize pot grows every year, as do ticket sales. Even Prince Harry showed up for the semi-finals a few years ago.
Hearn has also worked hard to export the sport. Although he’s spent much time and money in the US, he’s struggled to sell pro darts there. American players aren’t good enough to crack the world’s top 32, he says, and that country likes to watch sports in which it excels.
Still, Fox Sports has agreed to show highlights of the championship next year, he said, and he’s planning a world series of darts next year in Las Vegas.
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Back onstage, the showdown between Whitlock and Wright continued.
Having entered a dark horse, Wright had the best performance of his life this year. He beat Whitlock and faced last year’s runner-up Michael van Gerwen in the final.
But it was Van Gerwen who took home the trophy on New Year’s Day. Wright consoled himself by pocketing the $165,000 second prize and his first shot at the big money of the Premier League.
But that was still days away Monday night. With only a few throws left to sew up the match, Wright paused, turned to the crowd and flicked up his palms.
The crowd went wild. Wright turned back to the board with just enough of a smile for the television cameras to catch.