Fri, Jan 14, 2005 - Page 22 News List

Darts' new razzle hits `big time'

OUT OF THE PUB One of the world's favorite bar pastimes has a new image, with tournaments being broadcast globally and glitz the name of the game

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PURFLEET, ENGLAND

Andy ``The Viking'' Fordham, an English darts champion, relaxing last week at his wife's pub in Dartford, Kent. ``Drinking goes part and parcel with darts,'' he says, but the champions are trimming down to fit the traditional pub sports' new image of glitz and glamor.

PHOTO: NYTIMES

Phil "The Power" Taylor cocked his head slightly, eyed the dart board and, ignoring the soused crowd and the fog of cigarette smoke, sealed the match with a perfect flick of the wrist. But this was no ordinary game of darts relegated to a quaint local pub, where the stakes are more often measured in frothy pints than in pounds sterling.

Showcasing the game's newly acquired razzle-dazzle, tournament players including Bob "The Limestone Cowboy" Anderson, Wayne "Hawaii 501" Mardle and Kevin "The Artist" Painter -- tramped into the spacious Circus Tavern in London's Purfleet suburb last week with all the flourish and gusto of heavyweight boxers.

With buxom blondes on their arms, theme tunes pulsating from loudspeakers (I Got the Power) and colored spotlights swirling, the players, clad in boxy custom-made shirts, ambled to the stage through the screeching crowd of 900 mostly drunken fans. The winner, the legendary Taylor, who cornered his record 12th world title, took home ?60,000 (US$112,000), a sliver of what he earns on the circuit and from endorsements.

More important, the match was broadcast by Sky Sports, seen by at least 2 million British viewers, and was piped into 500 million households worldwide. Darts even registered its first pay-per-view head-to-head match last November, between Taylor and the much-loved Andy "The Viking" Fordham, with the promise of another not too far off.

"Darts is a cross between a Springsteen concert and professional wrestling now," said Sid Waddell, a longtime commentator, embellishing just a smidge. "It's a sport that needs dramatic lighting and heavy rock music punctuated by the intensity of the crowd."

While purists may tut-tut, there is little doubt that this new formula -- not so different from the repackaging of poker in the US -- has revitalized the ailing game of darts and captured international attention. China and Japan, where fans enthusiastically mob British dart players for their autographs, have embraced the sport with particular vigor. China formed its first national dart organization last September, and 250,000 members signed up right away.

Darts can even be seen regularly in the US now, where it is most popular on the East Coast, on Fox Sports Net, which has televised marquee tournaments and the Vegas Desert Classic.

"What darts has become is a television phenomenon," said Barry Hearn, a former boxing promoter and the chairman of the Professional Darts Corp, a breakaway group that formed in 1992 and spearheaded the revitalization.

Groupies, too, are budding, most notably a set calling themselves Tarts for Darts.

The game's appeal is rooted in its working-class sensibilities and lager-fueled ambiance, which helps explain why there are 100 million dart players worldwide. There is no game that can be played as easily -- in a pub the weather is irrelevant, fees are laughably low and obesity is hardly a disqualifier.

The game's success has now prompted efforts to try to sober up its image and get it introduced as an Olympic sport, or at least a sport recognized by the Olympic committee. After all, synchronized swimming, table tennis and badminton are Olympic sports, and no one questions the skill and mental focus required to play darts at a top level.

Some consider it unlikely the game will ever make it to the Olympics, and point to its Cockney roots as the biggest obstacle.

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