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'Darts is a major sport, not a pub game any more'

A new breed of fan has been created at the new home of the professional game, writes Paul Newman

Some things never change at the darts. Referee Russ Bray still sounds like a polar bear with laryngitis (only Wayne Mardle's shirts are louder), Peter Manley continues to play the bogeyman and the British brewing industry's future is assured for another year. When the last beer is poured at tonight's final of the PDC World Championship the number of pints consumed will have topped 250,000, an average of more than seven per spectator per day.

In other respects, however, darts is entering a new era and not just on the oche, where, for the first time in the PDC tournament's 15-year history, Phil Taylor will not figure in the final. The successful switch from the Circus Tavern in Purfleet to the more rarefied atmosphere of Alexandra Palace with double the seating capacity at 2,000 has underlined what big business the sport has become.

For the last fortnight 'Ally Pally' has been full of young men and women drinking with the thirst of desert bushmen, scribbling messages on cards to wave at the TV cameras, dancing in the aisles during ad breaks and generally having a good time. Tickets cost between 10 and 50, with hospitality packages 210 per head. Such has been the success of the tournament that tickets for the final have been traded for more than 200 on eBay. By close of play tonight more than 35,000 spectators will have attended the 19 sessions.

"In five years the audience for PDC darts events has changed massively," Barry Hearn, chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, said. "We used to reckon that most of our audience were people in the 45-50 age range. They were darts players. The average age of the audience here is 20-25. These people don't play darts. They come here for a good night out.

"I'm not knocking the BDO's world championship [the rival organisation event, broadcast by the BBC], but that's for pub league players. You see the difference in the age and in the enthusiasm for the sport of these young people here.

"Darts is no longer a pub game. We've also seen the professionalism that has come into darts with people like Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld. They're full-time professionals, practising six hours a day, and 1m-plus earners. We've severed the umbilical cord with pubs and darts has now become a major sport."

With an annual circuit of 50 tournaments, nine of which are on live television, and yearly prize money approaching 4m, it is no wonder that up to 20 PDC players are full-time professionals. The word is spreading: players from 19 countries started out at Alexandra Palace and TV rights have been sold around the world.

If some miss the intimacy of the tournament's previous home, most recognise that it was time to change, with Alexandra Palace, which staged the "News of the World" Championship when it was the biggest event in darts four decades ago, the perfect choice.

"The Circus Tavern was very good to me, but things have had to move on and this is a more appropriate venue for what darts has become," Taylor said. "I remember my first impression as I approached Ally Pally and saw it up there on the hill. It felt like you were going up to Buckingham Palace. It's a massive venue and great for darts."

Sid Waddell, who is celebrating 30 years in the commentary box, said: "The Circus Tavern was like playing in a pub. This has been like playing in Wembley Stadium or an opera house." Manley agreed. "We need big venues like this," he said. "Darts has grown so big. Football's probably the only sport that beats darts in terms of viewing figures. The crowds have been fantastic and you still get direct contact with the fans, which is great."

Hearn believes that darts players' bond with the public has been critical to the sport's success. "They're still interacting with the crowd," he said. "I think darts players are the new working-class heroes. The working man can't really associate any more with Premiership footballers earning 130,000 a week. I realise the winner here will get 100,000, but it's not even a week's wages for some footballers. An average man can understand 100,000 because it's still touchable."

Moving to Alexandra Palace has helped Hearn to drive home his message. "We're light years away from the old image of all darts players as fat guys who drink," he said. "This is a major sport, producing major money, and we needed a venue that spoke volumes about the re-invention of darts. Ally Pally has been perfect because of its historic links with darts and because it's such a magnificent listed building. The pictures going around the world have shown this as a major sporting event and venue, which is exactly what it is."