- The venue: Alexandra Palace, London, UK
- The event: William Hill World Darts Championship
By Mark Bradley
WINDING UP the hill to Alexandra Palace on the W3 bus, I wondered why they needed such a big venue for such a little sport, but as the event programme confidently states, ‘nobody can say darts is just a British pub game any more’.
Darts is the case study par excellence for any sport that needs to refresh its format and improve its fortunes. The sport has magically transformed itself from lampoon and parody into a highly prized visual spectacular, with interest in the game growing all over the world. For most minor sports, just generating any level of public interest would be good, but what darts has achieved from such a pejorative starting point is singularly impressive.
The past? Jocky Wilson’s infamous five-pints-a-night ‘warm-up’ routine; the UK television show Bull’s Eye, which ran for 15 series and included the self-deprecating catchphrase: ‘look at what you could have won’; and the legendary Not the Nine O’clock News sketch where, instead of throwing darts, the participants knocked back a load of drinks in an attempt to become ‘completely newscastered’.
The present is certainly different, though, and I’m about to attend the first night of 15 days of the William Hill World Darts Championship to watch players like Gary Anderson, Phil Taylor, Raymond van Barneveld and Michael van Gerwen who are now globally-recognised icons. There is wall-to-wall coverage from UK pay-television broadcaster Sky, £1.65m (€1.9m/$2m) in prize money – including £350,000 to the winner – and a packed arena every single night. Tickets went on sale in July for this Christmas event – or ‘Darts-mas’ as it is now known – and a week ahead of the competition only restricted-view tickets remained.
I thought about what mattered to me as a fan attending a sports event for the first time. I wondered if the organisers would make it easy for this ‘newbie’ to get the best possible experience. I wondered if the event would make me feel genuinely valued and engaged and I wondered if the PDC had found ways to deliver an experience that is truly unique.
Before the event I did need to combine visits to the PDC, See Tickets and Ally Pally’s websites to get all of the info a first-timer needs, such as details regarding ticket purchases, getting there and the schedule for the evening. However, while the provision of a ‘New to Darts-mas?’ tab on their websites would have been helpful, it wasn’t a massive chore to find the information. Social media was on point throughout too, as I discovered when I joined 182,000 other users in following the @OfficialPDC Twitter account. There was also an official PDC app, which offered some fun darts games.
The first real darts were due to be thrown at 7pm but the Fans’ Village opened much earlier, so it was here that I presented myself at 5.30pm, accompanied by several large lobsters, a troop of Tellytubbies and some Donald Trumps. The fancy dress competition is a big part of the event’s USP.
As a first-time attendee, I had little or no expectations of how the evening would turn out, but the early signs were good. There were some decent eateries available (pizza, burgers, German sausages, etc.) and activities too, one of which, presented by tournament sponsor William Hill, offered the chance to win a t-shirt by throwing more than 101 with three darts. The queues of people waiting to have a go were a testament to the success of this particular piece of activation.
You could also pay to have your picture taken with former stars like Keith Deller, who must surely look at the potential prize winnings available to his protégé Adrian Lewis and wish he were young again.
While the eateries were diverse, the range of drinkeries was narrower since just about everybody I met was drinking beer. As I watched people pass by carrying their large plastic jugs of ale like steadicams, I smiled at the organisers’ understanding of their customer base. They clearly appreciate that, at this time of year, there’s a market for groups of revellers who want to have a great time, make some noise and have a few drinks.
This was also clear upon entering the venue since the first thing that greeted me was the opportunity to buy drink tokens. But that was another tick in the box marked ‘ease’ , since one thing I’ve learned from fellow sports fans is that the quality of beer is secondary to the speed at which it can be obtained.
I spoke to several fans within half an hour of arriving, as I was keen to know more about their motivations for being there. This turned out to be a wise move, since later conversations proved less coherent by the pint.
“Why not?” replied three German lads in matching Technicolor suits and Santa Hat freebies. “It’s fantastic. We love it.” While we chatted, an event security representative approached the group and politely asked for a translation of the message they’d written in their native language on the back of their sponsor-provided ‘180!’ card. It’s a family show after all, evidenced by the presence of a family enclosure in the arena.
A group of older guys took their seats. Their first love was football and, specifically, Premier League football club Chelsea, but they were delighted to be here. “We missed out last year,” they told me. “We’d seen it on TV and it looked brilliant. We couldn’t believe the tickets sold out so quickly, so we got in early this time.”
A light show illuminated the full range of seating options: there were long Oktoberfest-style drinking tables, a hospitality area with pre-ordered drinks waiting; plus a family area or tiered seats at the back.
The ominous thudding rhythm of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch accompanied a dizzying countdown on the big screen and we were into the action. Each player walked down a specially-designed ‘catwalk’ to their own individual and far cheerier signature tune, accepted the crowd’s acclaim and then took to the stage alongside four cheerleaders.
And the sport itself does take centre stage. Two giant screens, either side of the dartboard, put the players’ skills under the microscope, while the announcer drew the roars of the crowd with this old game’s familiar catchphrases, “one hundred and eighty!”, “double top!” and “Kevin, you require…”.
Within moments the entire floor was loudly singing ‘stand up, if you love the darts!’ while Sky’s cameras picked out the crustaceans, Tellytubbies and Donald Trumps in the crowd and a huge cheer accompanied the first 180, as its author Kevin Painter, followed by Jamie Lewis, Gary Anderson and Michael Smith all progressed to the second round.
In such a party atmosphere, the darts could have felt like an afterthought, but the presentation of the action itself draws you in. It is a sports tournament, but it’s also one massive Christmas party and I felt ‘darts-massy’ all the way back down the hill and into a mild December London night.
Many sports see ‘fan engagement’ to be purely about providing entertaining sporting ‘content’ and fail to appreciate the growth potential offered by its strategic dimension – understanding and responding to the deeper motivations and needs of the audience. But this experience proved to me that darts has a very clear idea about what moves its audience.
“The reason I love the darts so much,” one of the revellers told me later in the evening, “is that they don’t take it too seriously.” But if there’s one thing I’ve learned at this spectacular event, it is that they very clearly do.
Ease 7/10 (could do more to prepare and reassure the first timer, but drinks ordering couldn’t have been easier and all staff encountered were keen to help)
Value 8/10 (highly visible but light-touch security; a great view of the action from wherever you sit and, in the Fans’ Village, there are opportunities to have a go yourself)
Recommendation 8/10 (for full-on revelry and a textbook example of how to manage an experience according to its customers’ needs, it’s hard to beat).
Organised by the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation), the William Hill World Darts Championship took place at the Alexandra Palace in North London, running for 15 days from December 15, 2016. Seventy-two players competed for a record prize fund of £1.65 million with the winner walking away with an unprecedented £350,000 and the coveted Sid Waddell Trophy.
– Transport: W3 bus from Wood Green Tube, or energetic uphill walk from Alexandra Palace railway station
– Televised daily by Sky
– Tickets were available from £31 per person
Mark Bradley is the founder of the Fan Experience Company, an organisation that provides consultancy services to sports teams and institutions looking to improve the way they engage with and retain their fans. He has also written extensively about customer service excellence and is an accomplished speaker on the subject. Follow @FanExperienceCo on Twitter.