Photo: Photo Courtesy Of Abigail Davies
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LONDON – On the evening of April 17, Luke Woodhouse went into the kitchen of his home in Bewdley, a small town in England’s Midlands, and threw some darts at a board. The 31-year-old was beat from helping homeschool his two kids, ages 8 and 9. But he wasn’t just blowing off steam: Woodhouse is a pro. And via the camera on his cellphone – which he had slotted into a selfie stick and carefully propped up on a shelf behind him – he was competing against Gerwyn Price, a highly-ranked Welshman in the Professional Darts Corporation.
In that game, Woodhouse hit a “nine-darter.” A perfect game of darts. The highest, purest form of the sport. Celebrating, he stuck his head into the frame, pumped his fist, and let out a “wow!” His family was in the other room, watching the broadcast. As instructed, they weren’t using the WiFi at their home, so as to not bog down the broadcast speed.
Woodhouse would later describe it as a nervier moment than he had imagined, what with being in his own kitchen and all. The nine-darter was “brilliant,” he said, and garnered some media attention. “I’m a little shocked by how public and how wide it’s gone.”
There have already been some early examples of the return of sports, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic keeps people inside around the globe. The Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, has returned. So has UFC. But the Professional Darts Corporation had them beat.
The PDC suspended its live operations in mid-March, and later that month, the United Kingdom went into national lockdown. But by April, with the launch of what is called the PDC Home Tour, darts had already come back.
The PDC is based in the UK but hosts events throughout the world. It is home to the best players in darts, who can sometimes earn tens of thousands in prize money, and has a fervent audience famous both for its Halloween-style costuming and its healthy appetite for alcohol. The latest edition of the PDC’s World Championship, held in London over a few weeks in December, was attended by more than 80,000 people.
The format for the tour broadcast is similar to ESPN’s H-O-R-S-E contest, with players maintaining social distancing by competing from their respective homes. But unlike H-O-R-S-E, this isn’t a limited experiment. The Home Tour airs almost nightly, via Sky (as well as DAZN in North America and Fox Sports in Australia) and has featured around 100 competitors. And technically, the game play is no different: two players start with 501 points and race to zero. (Each dart you hit knocks points off your score.) This is pro darts, just in isolation. And just like pre-pandemic darts, the Home Tour is strangely compelling, surprisingly intense and extremely goofy.
“We’ve got some young, creative minds,” PDC chief executive Matt Porter said. “And no one is criticizing anybody for being inventive right now.”
After darts shut down, PDC players started to kick around plans, on Twitter, to compete via their phones. A PDC employee noticed the chatter and flagged management. Soon, the in-home format was born. Normally, the PDC on TV is a party: Players walk on to thumping pop bangers and pyrotechnics; between play, the camera captures swaying packs of pinted-up fans dressed like crayons or Ronald McDonalds or whatever they please. The home broadcasts, though, are muted affairs that carry a slight vibe of experimental, meditative art.
A split screen shows each player’s dart board; lower-third graphics note the score; a little picture-in-picture shows the amiable darts commentator Dan Dawson, who mediates the banter. For the most part you’re just seeing the darts hit the boards, over and over again.
At home, before each match, the players point a tablet or phone camera at their dartboard for a broadcast that is staffed by live directors who are also working from home. Along with Sky and DAZN, the action is also live-streamed directly on the sites of various bookmakers, who have been so starved for live sports they had notably ramped up coverage of sumo wrestling in Japan.
The PDC held early internal discussions about providing players with professional streaming equipment, but quickly deemed it prohibitively expensive. So the organization simply let the players to manage their broadcasts themselves. Players have competed from Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, Canada and Spain, and at all hours of their respective nights. They’ve set up streams from their living rooms, garages and the landings of their stairs.
On April 17, Sky Sports provided this incredible news bulletin, about one of the game’s top players: “Gary Anderson has withdrawn from the PDC Home Tour because his WiFi connection is not strong enough.”
(Anderson did, eventually, sort out his Internet connection, and has since joined the tour.)
Effectively, the PDC banked that a certain shambling charm would shine through. Dawson, the host, broadcasts from a basement in the Birmingham house he shares with three roommates. He got it broadcast-ready by throwing out a deflated pool and swapping out a poster for “The Wicker Man” (“the original, obviously”) for some dart boards and sponsor branding.
“We try to make it feel as much like a proper coherent tournament each night,” he said, “even though it is a bit of a bodge job.”
Dawson shouts out the darts player Richard North, who “was basically playing on a hastily-erected lean-to on the side of his house” in Hampshire, England, equipped only with a dart board and a CD rack onto which he had taped his phone.
“It did look a bit like a blue prison cell,” Dawson recalled. “But he managed to get involved!”
Porter, the organization’s chief executive, admits that “the sight of the darts landing on the boards, it’s quite repetitive. But the interaction, the banter with each other, the winding each other up – that’s been quite watchable.”
In darts, the maximum score achievable on a single turn is 180 points. At live events, that is a moment raucously celebrated by fans. Now, when achieving the feat, some players take it upon themselves to scream out an impassioned, lonely “one hundred and eeeeeighttyyy.”
And there has been the drama of seeing who will elevate in the strange new world: Largely unknown players, like the 21-year-old Dutchman Geert Nentjes, have been able to best some of the powerhouses of the game.
A handful of elite players are multimillionaires, but most are just trying to carve out a living. (Some are part-time pros still working day jobs deemed essential.) The at-home broadcasts provide a bit of financial support – every player gets the same 500 pound appearance fee – and a chance for competitive play.
“Sports men and women are born to compete in sport,” said Barry Hearn, the 71-year-old commissioner of the PDC. “You take that away from them, you’re taking away their reason to be put on this earth.”
Of the Home Tour, Hearn admits, “the technical quality is not as good as we would usually expect.”
“But in the land of the blind, the one eye man is king, isn’t he? In the middle of the desert a small glass of water is sold at a huge premium,” he said. “If you think of sports fans as being almost addicted to sport, this was a small fix. We created this roller coaster. And who’s to say your living room can’t be the venue for the party?”
For Hearn, ultimately, this is more than a crafty business move. It’s history.
“People will look back and say, what were you doing when the world was in chaos?’ [The Home Tour] is a testament of character and an endeavor of trust and hope,” he said. “We’re showing we’re not the kind of sport, not the kind of people, that sit there and accept inevitability.”