By Sanjay Suri
Darts is growing in popularity in the UK. The sport, which was once relegated to the corner of the pub, is now taking centre stage at various sell-out arenas across the country and Durham is no exception. College darts consists of 32 teams across two leagues and that number is only expected to increase in the coming years.
However, given that the sport has a history of ‘lad culture,’ what is especially encouraging is the emergence of women’s teams in various Durham colleges. I sat down with Collingwood’s Amy Morgan, Van Mildert’s Maia Doyle, and St Cuthbert’s Society’s Maddy Harlow to find out more.
Van Mildert has often been credited as the “founding father” of women’s darts, according to Maia. The club exploded in popularity in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, and that growth has been impossible to stop. “Darts became a really nice time for everyone in the college to get together. We played every Monday; it was really fun — a very supportive atmosphere — and everyone was invited.
“We have 120 as part of our group now. Obviously, there are many different levels, as some people play competitively at DU level. But I feel that college darts is definitely a really nice way to spend a Monday.”
Maddy was also keen to describe it as “a good social on a Monday night” despite her team’s struggles in the league. “The highlight has been actually meeting new people. It’s quite nice to play a different team each week. We’d go out to Loft after and you’d see the people you’ve played the weeks before.”
The sudden development of women’s darts has been vital in terms of breaking down barriers in what has typically been perceived as a masculine sport. Recently, a DU women’s darts team has formed in the wake of the growth in popularity. The general reaction from men’s teams when they face an all-female line-up is one of mild surprise, but on the whole positive.
“At first, they find it quite funny because they’ve never played a women’s team before. They don’t know what to expect so when we start to win a few it gets quite crazy because they weren’t expecting it,” Amy explains. “It just shows the boys we can play darts and we can beat them. It just challenges those stereotypes.
“The president of college darts has been really good at integrating the girls into the league system, not asking any questions as honestly some boys would.”
Maia agrees with this sentiment, also experiencing a lot of positivity from competitors. “Genuinely it is the nicest atmosphere from all the teams — boys or girls. Some teams like to say they take it really seriously but it’s just a funny and bizarre way to spend a Monday night. We’ve never had a bad match or one where anyone feels uncomfortable. It’s a supportive atmosphere across the board.”
Unfortunately, not all of the reaction has been so encouraging. Amy points out that the culture surrounding darts can sometimes lead to sexism. “There are a few sexist rules that have been imposed by various teams like: if you lose to a girl, you have a drinking forfeit. This only happens because you lost to a girl rather than you just lost so there are still issues. We do flag it up because why do you have to drink just because I’m a girl?”
One particular moment stands out to Amy, regarding a rival team. That team has since been banned from the league but continues to exist and regularly plays friendlies. “There was one team which we really didn’t enjoy. They chanted some quite sexist things but then I beat their captain which kind of helped bring the night to a close. But the whole time, everyone was quite on edge. It just felt quite intimidating.”
Being a pub sport, darts naturally attracts a drinking culture. However, Maddy’s Cuth’s team have thought of a couple of creative ways to ensure that drinking is not central to a good match of darts. “One week, against Mary’s, we would normally do a beer leg in the middle, where the winning team gets a free pint. Instead, we did a toastie leg, because no-one wanted to drink. I think there’s definitely opportunity to drink but it’s not enforced.”
Maia has also been very conscious to separate the toxic drinking from the darts. “We’ve never done ‘fresher bashing’ or initiations or anything like that, so it is very much “take it at your own pace.” You definitely could have quite a big night but lots of girls do it sober if they don’t really feel like any of that. For us the drinking isn’t really a thing. It’s definitely there but not forced.”
In some of the men’s teams, the drinking can be both dangerous and expensive. Amy was shocked when she first realised the amount of alcohol consumed in one night by some teams. “Originally, I thought I would learn the drinking rules because it’s a bit of fun and you might as well commit to it, and I got sent this list. The first rule was: if you miss the board on your first go, you have to have a whole bottle of wine.
“I thought right, we’re going to have to translate these rules for realistic things for both general health and money because the average darts night out for someone drinking properly is £50 easily. I didn’t want to force anyone to do that so the drinking culture around women’s darts is very much to have a pint on the side. If you do a particularly bad go, go get a couple of shots. It’s just calmer.”
This year has already seen a couple of big events showcasing women’s darts. Mildert organised a charity event earlier this year, which gained exposure for both the teams and their chosen charity, CoppaFeel, which promotes awareness about breast cancer amongst young people. “We organised a massive charity event with Aggression Sessions for CoppaFeel. 100 people from ten colleges turned up in the JCR and we raised around £300 just through playing darts which was really quite cool.”
The most high-profile moment came at Babylon, where 16 players faced off in eight matches in a packed arena on a Wednesday evening. Maia and Amy faced off against each other, both of them loving the experience, even if there were a few nerves. “I had butterflies and had to do a full walk down from the Babylon loos all the way down to the stage.” Maia recalls.
“I’m so glad I was up against Amy because I was so nervous. Genuinely it was just like two friends up on the stage which was so nice. I mean she won, but I’m not going to say I’m salty about because it was so fun! I met her recently through darts and I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The feelings are certainly mutual on Amy’s side. “It was really good because we had two women’s games out of eight. Proportionally that is good because I wouldn’t say one in four college darts players are female at this point in time.
“Both girls’ teams came and had 20 people each which made it feel like there was a lot of support behind us for a sport that girls have never investigated. Our whole team felt quite famous that we were asked to take part in this in the first place because we had only been set up four months ago and suddenly, we were being asked to stand up on a stage and play.”
The support that the women’s teams show for each other is admirable to say the least. It moves away from the typical controversies that surround Durham societies, where drinking, intimidation and ‘lad culture’ are so prevalent. “We can have our own night.” Maia points out. “It is just a really reassuring environment where we all look out for each other. Just all of us being together is very much a supportive atmosphere which sometimes can be overshadowed by a big part of Durham University.”
Amy also understands the significance of her team. “Darts, especially at university is associated with drinking and a lot of it stems off rugby and cricket which in themselves are very male dominated sports. Being able to set up a women’s team, not the first one, but a Collingwood one which sparked other college teams was great.
“A highlight is definitely when people win their first game because a lot of the girls on the team have never played darts before. Just the genuine excitement and happiness that everyone feels because it is a bit lucky when people win but you can just see their confidence and they come out of their shells.”
Darts is changing from the top level down. Fallon Sherrock continues to set firsts for female darts players, the most recent of which being the first woman to achieve a nine-dart finish in the PDC. However, true change must take place at all levels. Whilst the majority of female darts players in Durham are not thinking of competing at Sherrock’s level, they are still providing a platform which makes darts accessible to all people.
Image credit: Amy Morgan