It is the breeding ground of stars but now the original World Darts Championship has double trouble – poor ticket sales and prize money problems.
While the newer, more lucrative Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) tournament welcomed record festive viewing figures and a story that made headlines around the world, the British Darts Organisation (BDO) event’s future is less certain.
Some players have walked out to crowds just one deep, in scenes more worthy of the local social club than a big sporting occasion.
So what is happening with the event once graced by Eric Bristow, Phil Taylor and Michael van Gerwen but now without a sponsor?
Why the current crisis?
After 33 years at the Lakeside Country Club in Surrey, the tournament has moved to Indigo, a venue within London’s O2 complex.
But many fans have cited the location and higher prices as reasons why they are not attending this year.
Players were warned in a letter from BDO chairman Des Jacklin just days before the 2020 tournament began on Saturday that prize money would be reduced after only 15% of tickets were sold and that the brand was “toxic” in some circles.
Organisers had a golden shot at marketing the event to a wider audience when 2015 BDO women’s world title runner-up Fallon Sherrock made history as the first woman to beat a man in the PDC World Championship.
But Sherrock withdrew amid reports the women’s top prize could drop from £12,000 last year to £8,000 this time, with first-round losers taking home only £500.
“The BDO shouldn’t have left Lakeside until they had built up their finances – you can’t sail a ship with no wind. I feel sorry for the players,” said two-time world finalist Bobby George, who helped anchor BBC television coverage until the broadcaster pulled out four years ago.
Why are there two world championships?
The BDO hosted the original world championship, which was held at Lakeside, Frimley Green, from 1986.
In 1992, players including Taylor broke away to form the body that became the PDC, with its main event now at Alexandra Palace in London and shown on Sky.
It has grown in stature, with this year’s champion Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright winning £500,000 – five times the amount of any winner in the other tournament.
While the newer entity helped bring Taylor and others to a wider audience and generally produces higher-quality matches, the BDO – with its county structure – nurtures upcoming talent.
Television coverage for 2020 was secured by the BDO via Quest and Eurosport and aside from Sherrock, others have played on.
Prize money may rise if ticket sales increase in the run-up to Sunday’s final.
What has gone wrong at the BDO?
Barry Hearn, who believes darts can rival golf under his PDC leadership, said he had a £2m offer to buy out the BDO rejected and accused the organisation of poor management and commercial decisions.
“I’m disappointed to see it because they do have a role to play within grassroots. They are not a major commercial operation but they act as though they think they should be,” said PDC chairman Hearn.
He said warning of a prize money cut as players prepare for their biggest tournament amounted to “a horrendous loss of credibility”.
“I offered them £2m, which I thought was quite a lot of money, and they turned me down,” he said. “This is a bit like the guy who discovered the Beatles and didn’t sign them up, isn’t it?”
What about the future?
This year’s tournament has showcased exactly what the BDO is good at – bringing through the next generation of players.
Lincoln teenager Leighton Bennett only turned 14 on New Year’s Eve but plays on the senior circuit and took a set off 2015 world champion Scott Mitchell this year before being beaten 3-1.
Then there is Doncaster’s Beau Greaves, who at just 15 is in the quarter-finals of the women’s competition and rated third favourite to win the title.
So there are positives, yet the BDO has not helped itself on the public relations front.
Its Twitter account has nearly 60,000 followers yet the daily tournament schedule is not updated to reflect the results of qualifiers.
Media enquiries go unanswered, while a GoFundMe page was set up to cover the women’s prize money shortfall – with £2,000 raised.
Jacklin has overseen the removal of restrictions on BDO players entering PDC qualifying school, as well as permitting BDO players to enter the women’s qualifier for the PDC World Championship.
In an interview last summer with his local radio station, BBC Lincolnshire, he outlined attempts to turn the organisation around.
“My hands are tied on a lot of things. There are contracts in place that prevent me from speaking to certain companies on certain levels, including potential sponsors,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the people who ran the BDO before me got us into this position and I can’t get us out.”
Meanwhile, back at the Lakeside – where two-time PDC champion Gary Anderson once threw his darts into the water after an early BDO exit – the sport still makes a splash.
In November, Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld will renew their rivalry at an ‘Icon of Darts’ night. A reminder of the glory days that seem like a long time ago right now.