Flight Club or Stoke Pub? The Gentrification of Darts.

IT’S June 2020. Dan Dawson is describing the final night of the Low6 Home Tour, with temporary sponsorship hoardings behind him as he peers into the action on his computer screen. Makeshift cameras are fixed facing the dartboards of Nathan Aspinall and Gary Anderson as they battle out the most unusual of PDC finals.

It is indicative of a sport’s world having to adapt to the very unusual circumstances that Covid-19 has created, and also a sign of how darts has undergone an extraordinary evolution from pub-focused participation sport to a game that has penetrated the professional level in the last 50 years.

Dr. Patrick Chaplin is one of the foremost authorities on how darts came to be ingrained on the national consciousness in the early 20th century. It can be hard to imagine the arras without jeering crowds and an endless conveyor belt of floor and TV competitions, but you don’t have to go back far to find the game in its primitive condition.

Chaplin explained: “The first major boom for darts was actually in the inter-war years. Darts didn’t exist as we know it today until the late Victorian period. People seem to think that darts was always with us, always in the public house, but that wasn’t the case. It found its way into pubs after finding its way into the fairground. It was a merger of a form of darts in England and a French game called ‘flechettes’, meaning small darts, and this is how we first got the wooden darts with turkey feathers.

“They were all made in France for a particular game and brought over here and very gradually the game of darts before WWI became a part of pub culture. “The pub trade was an industry always under pressure – whether it be from the temperance movement, licensing acts or things like that. At this time, they were threatened by other attractions, spectator sports like football, or dancing, cinema and greyhound racing.

“This meant people were not in pubs drinking. Part of the growth of the pub in the inter-war period was the promotion of pub games, starting in London, which led to the first national darts organisation being set up in 1925. “This aimed to organise the game in such a way that it brought together all of the leagues in England under one umbrella. This meant that when the brewers got together with the licensees, under these newly organised leagues, there was a growth in participation, and this continued right until 1939, throughout WWII, but then became less organised after the war.

“There was then the National Darts Association of Great Britain which sort of controlled the game right from the 1950s until the 1970s. So up until this period, darts was extremely popular, and not just with men, but with women too.”

It is quite clear to see that the relationship between the pub and darts was a very fundamental one, not just for the development and growth of the game but for the public house’s sustainability. So how is it that we are seeing such a decline of the game’s role in pubs and clubs? For starters, it is quite clear to see that this relationship was one born out of economic necessity for pubs and in a changing world, where they have evolved to become more family-orientated, the dartboard has increasingly found itself isolated. Plus, many pubs are finding themselves increasingly up against it.

More than 5,000 of them are reported to have closed since December 2014, and those were pre-Covid 19 estimates. The industry is estimated to have lost £100 million each month during the first national lockdown, and even if pubs may be able to return to more consistent levels of income next year, they are having to adjust to the new norms of social distancing and controls over opening hours.

There are some offering resistance to this supposed change of tide within the game. Darts in Stoke is an organisation that aims to bring attention to events and leagues in the Stoke and Staffordshire region. It offers an interesting case study. Stoke is a city steeped in darts history, having produced Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis to name but a couple and being where Eric Bristow and partner Maureen Flowers plied their trade when both were at their best. But like many other places across Britain, it is seeing a rapid decline in the spaces where the sport once thrived.

Shaun Rogers from Darts in Stoke told me:

“The history with the area and darts is so embedded. No matter what pub you go in, if you get on the board, they will always say, ‘Are you the next Taylor?’ It’s what happens around here, however sadly over time more and more of the traditional pubs are drifting away and now we see pubs that only get the board on the wall on a darts night. I don’t think the sport’s roots are under threat around here as we had before lockdown perhaps over 400 players playing in the various weekly leagues and whenever we hold darts knockouts we see good strong numbers attending the events we hold.

“But I do fear that if the Covid-19 pandemic shuts venues then there will be a loss to a generation of players, which is why we are now looking to work with the Staffordshire Darts Academy to open a new venue in Newcastle-under-Lyme for 8-18 year old players.”

Flight Club is an example of a different darts to that which we might be familiar with. Giving a glossier shine to the sport, it aims to provide what it calls ‘Social Darts’. Here, a night playing arras is an experience rather than a way of life or a regular weekly fixture. Flight Club takes the game’s fast-paced nature to a whole new level, developing short and exciting games for punters – largely not those you may expect to be a member of a local team or league – to enjoy.

Although Flight Club has extended its bases outside of London, it remains focused in Britain’s big cities. It certainly doesn’t feel like an ‘experience’ tailored or pitched to the local players of Stoke-on-Trent. But that doesn’t make it a bad thing. PhD student Mark Ball, who looked into local darts in Stoke as part of a project on ‘leisure, meaning and a sense of place’, suggested to me:

“Flight Club presents itself as an interesting contradiction. On one hand, it’s throwing darts at a board – the same thing, but a different one also. With Flight Club, you obviously have to pay. It’s two different visions of leisure in the city, drinking and throwing darts at the board with all the convivial feel of a darts match but very different and marketed in a different way.

“For me, it brings up an interesting question of who are cities for? If there are local darts leagues in London struggling then where does that leave these social spaces? It isn’t as visible in Stoke but does say something about that question.

“In my eyes, bashing one thing or the other is slightly less interesting than looking at how cities are changing and I think it’s fine for people to go to Flight Club and maybe they will even join a team off the back of it. But I think it really represents a ‘novelty economy’ where you may do something fun but have a loose attachment to it, and I think it speaks to a loose attachment to darts, and maybe it suggests that that is valued more than that deeper relationship. Where can people go with that, because this is a private enterprise and leagues do need businesses to be supportive of them and in city centres it just makes more sense to sell booze.

“But I think Darts in Stoke has something which Flight Club doesn’t. The pub I played at had five teams, three women’s and two men’s, and three dartboards and that was a small pub. “There were two guys on the team I was on who had been playing for 50 years and through that had a really strong attachment to place. It is something you can keep up when you are older and isolation can prove a real problem, so being able to do something affordable is really important. There were other people who would often play but sometimes wouldn’t and would just stay and watch. There is a really strong culture around it, with the World Championships having been there and having had so many great players like Phil Taylor.”

It is not just at a grassroots level where change seems to be happening. The birth and growth of the Professional Darts Corporation has seen the sport modelled in a different way. The PDC are increasingly looking global, with events not just across Europe, but Asia and North America too. Differences and distinctions in the audiences of those continents and nations has seen darts evolve, and the professional centre of the game is now much less focused on the British Isles.

The US Darts Masters, for example, the PDC’s current sole World Series event in North America, was due to be held at the Madison Square Garden in New York this year, an extravagant and luxurious venue far both in distance and image from the clubs which used to be the cornerstone of the sport.

PDC Chief Executive Matt Porter told me of the organisation’s future plans. He said:

“Our short-term strategy is about managing the Covid situation – unfortunately, our global expansion plans are on hold. We’re in regular contact with our affiliates around the world to ensure they are able to manage the situation locally and plan for their restart at the appropriate time.

“Commercially, we’re working with our stakeholders like broadcasters and sponsors to ensure we’re delivering the best possible products for players and fans at this time and I think so far we’ve done OK on that front. “In terms of marketing, clearly we’re not really selling tickets at this time (although the 2021 Premier League is on sale) but we’re working hard behind the scenes to ensure we’re in the best possible shape for being ready to push the button at the right time.”

The PDC may have been stopped in its tracks by the Coronavirus pandemic, but there is no doubt that its evolution continues. Porter added: “I wouldn’t say the PDC has moved the sport away from the pubs and clubs of the UK – I’d say the pubs and clubs of the UK have done that by removing dartboards!

“We have unquestionably increased the profile of the sport over the last 10-20 years and because of the way in which we have done that, it now attracts an audience other than the traditional demographic. I don’t think changing darts is a risk – I think it was essential: the sport moved on hugely in the 90s and has continued on that upward trajectory ever since…if you stand still you go backward so for us it has always been about evolving the product and giving the public what they want.”

Although changes to the sport’s makeup may be down partly to external factors, there is no doubt the PDC has played a part in changing the game’s image. When he spoke to me in 2017, former pro turned SkySports pundit Wayne Mardle offered some interesting insights on the dilemma darts faces. He said:

“The first-ever darts league I played in was the London Superleague, I was 12 years old. We played in pubs all over London. It was a great experience for me as a player, and also a great life education. The good old days. Most public houses back then had a dartboard and pool table, not a booth for four to have a gourmet burger and a skinny latte.”

But Wayne came to an interesting conclusion.

“Times have changed. The space a dartboard takes up and the punters wanted in the alehouses now just doesn’t fit. Darts isn’t seen as a way of income. It’s all down to numbers.

“Like I’ve already mentioned, I grew up playing in the pubs and clubs in London. Most of the younger players now have bypassed that, and have gone straight from playing in the bedroom to playing in tournaments. The days of the pubs being an outlet for players went about ten years ago. The money in the sport will mean there will always be players.”

Darts’ evolution over recent years has been a fascinating one, and trying to draw simplistic conclusions on how and why it has happened, and what sort of impact it is having on the game, is no easy challenge. But as darts continues to attract more and different people, and how we consume the game develops, there is no doubt that the game is fundamentally changing, and has already fundamentally changed.

How the sport looks in another 10, 20 or 30 years is for its players and organisers to decide.

Words: Thomas Bartley, Image: Flight Club

Originally Featured in Darts World Magazine (Issue 573)

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