After twice being postponed because of COVID-19, the World Series of Darts (WSOD) finally makes its long-awaited debut in New York City June 3-4. More than 6,000 fans are expected to attend the Bet365 US Darts Masters and Bet365 North American Championship, taking place at the Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden.
Matthew Porter (CEO, Professional Darts Corporation) hopes the tour stop will help propel professional darts to a place within the American sports fan’s consciousness. “This is our opportunity to put a flag in the sand for the [U.S.] market. With a venue as high-profile as [MSG] and the amount of coverage we have received this week, particularly in New York, this could be our breakthrough moment to a wider reach in America,” he said.
JWS’ Take: Professional darts flies well below the average American sports fan’s radar, but in Europe, where the bulk of the WSOD events take place, it is a widely popular spectator sport. Porter said the PDC, promoter for the WSOD, sells “around a million tickets per year.” Events held in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands will regularly draw more than 10,000 people.
There are several reasons why professional darts has never managed to break through the U.S., none bigger than the presence of the big four pro sports leagues and a robust collegiate sports calendar. But the fact that the WSOD rarely airs live in U.S. prime time hasn’t helped. Pro darts promoters have historically shied away from the U.S. market because of the challenges cited and the cost of entry. “[In] certain markets we know we can go in and make a big impression on day one,” Porter said. America is not one of those markets.
However, Porter believes darts relevancy can be achieved in the U.S. and says the PDC is willing to invest the resources needed to ensure that happens (see: investment in Championship Darts Corporation, its local partner organization). He sees the massive participation numbers stateside (the National Sporting Goods Association suggests 17 million Americans play) and says with a regularly scheduled slate of events in North America, the WSOD can “make some real headway” over the next decade. The PDC has successfully opened up new markets before. “In 2008, we did our first event in Germany and sold 150 tickets. In 2018, we sold out the Mercedes Benz Arena in Berlin; 12,500 people,” Porter said.
The PDC’s desire to build a following in North America is in part driven by “ambitions to make the sport, and the tour, truly global,” Porter said. The States’ status as the biggest media market in the world is undoubtedly a factor as well. Broadcast rights are the WSOD’s largest revenue stream, and sponsorships and ticketing are others. The tour brings in ~$100 million in revenue annually and is “hugely profitable,” Porter said.
While the PDC has held events in the U.S. before (see: Las Vegas, Mohegan Sun), its target audience and promotional capabilities are different this time around. “Previous events were marketed more to the darts community and tourists from the U.K.,” Porter said. “With MSG’s marketing arm supporting us, we have been [able to deliver] more above-the-line visibility in the [New York market].”
Porter said the WSOD has already begun to engage in conversations with MSG about returning next year. Regularly hosting events at the same venue, in front of the same fans, should help the sport to build a local following.
While DAZN is the WSOD’s exclusive U.S. broadcast partner, the upcoming US Darts Masters and North American Championship events will be simulcast on MSG Networks. Why the exception? Porter said the New York market is a crucial part of PDC’s growth strategy, and the MSG simulcast should help.
If PDC values linear TV’s reach, it is logical to wonder why it agreed to an exclusive pact with an over-the-top streaming service. Porter reminded that DAZN is a “really good partner of [WSOD] parent company, Matchroom.”
Professional darts operates under a pyramid structure similar to international golf or tennis (except the men and women compete against one another at the top level). “We have  tour card holders at the top of the pyramid. [Those individuals compete in] a bracket-draw structure,” Porter said. Below them is a “challenge tour,” a “developmental tour for younger players” and youth academies. Unlike the local, regional and national tournaments put on by the American Cornhole League, there is no amateur component to the WSOD.
You can make a living playing professional darts. Porter said WSOD will pay out around $23 million this year in prize money, and the top earner will earn $2.5 million (between prize money, appearance fees, sponsorships and endorsements). However, because the professional game is based out of Europe, it remains costly and logistically challenging for the best American players to do so.
It is remarkable the PDC sells about 1 million tickets a year considering how few people at a darts event are emotionally invested in the event’s outcome. But Porter says the absence of a rooting interest ensures the experience is great. “[The outcome] doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the event if a certain result happens,” he said.
Those attending the WSOD event in New York City can expect a blend of world-class sport and a Halloween-party-like atmosphere. “People tend to go in groups. They have a few drinks. They wear costumes, like superhero costumes,” Porter said. “They go to enjoy themselves.” Matchroom Sport founder Barry Hearn once told JWS that the average fan at the World Series of Darts consumes 10.2 pints of beer per night. (That figure may be hyperbole.)