At first glance it looks like a typical student common room, with young men clustered around a dartboard. Then you notice the outfits — identical sports shirts and tracksuit bottoms — and the way the metal tips thud metronomically into a tiny zone around the treble 20 mark.
This is the UK’s first professional darts academy, a training ground for young people with ambitions in a sport that is attracting ever-increasing audiences and seeking to shed its beer and tattoos image.
The first 20 students have already been recruited to combine three days a week of intensive darts tutoring with other studies at Stockport College in Greater Manchester.
Paul McDonagh, a former professional player, has taken on the role of the country’s first academy darts coach. Aside from basic issues like stance and throw, he aims to bring in leading players to pass on tips, particularly on how to hit that elusive treble under the fierce scrutiny of the television cameras.
“Some people react well under pressure and some people fall apart. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
The course is supported by the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), the newer and arguably less fusty of the sport’s two competing governing bodies. The PDC’s world championship is currently under way at London’s Alexandra Palace over 13 days of play. Far bigger numbers will watch live on Sky Sports as Phil “The Power” Taylor, generally reckoned to be the greatest ever player, goes for a 15th world title.
While Taylor will win £200,000 (US$318,000) if he triumphs, McDonagh cautioned that very few people make a full-time living from darts: “The top 10 maybe average £150,000 a year and if you’re in the top 30 you can expect as much as, say, a teacher or policeman. Below that it can be tough.”
Steve Mort, head of the college’s well-respected sports academy, which already offers coaching in soccer, swimming and a dozen other activities, stressed that darts students must also take on another subject full-time, and are barred from training if they fall behind.
Stuart Hughes from Stockport is a darts academy entrant who — perhaps paradoxically, given the game’s image — is also studying to be a fitness trainer.
He said the game had already brought one obvious benefit: “My maths has improved dramatically. If you’re in front of the cameras and you start counting on your fingers, it’s not a good look.”
The PDC hopes the course will help introduce a new era of professionalism.
“Most players come out of a pub, and their mates become their managers,” said Rod Harrington, a former world champion who is now a PDC director. “It’s a multimillion-pound sport but even the most talented players treat it like a game down the pub, a jolly-up.”
As darts seeks to expand into new countries and gain sponsors beyond the usual bookmakers and alcohol firms, the PDC has realized that its top practitioners need to look a bit more, well, sporting.
“I keep on saying to the players, ‘You’ve got to get yourself fitter, it’ll make you more alert, a better player,’” Harrington said.
The corollary to this is alcohol. McDonagh’s students will all learn to play without a pint of beer within easy arm’s reach.
“It can’t be classed as a sport if you’re taking a drug as you play it. If you want blue-chip companies in as sponsors they’ll have to stop the alcohol,” he said.
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