[dropcap]D[/dropcap]arts has not always been fashionable. Not long ago it was derided as a pantomime sport, one which was more about drinking than any form of skill. Some still contest it is a game rather than a sport, as if this should affect our appreciation of the spectacle.
And yet, there is no denying its huge appeal. The PDC World Championship, for instance, has become a Christmas mainstay since its move to Alexandra Palace 10 years ago. Every year, tickets sell out within days and fans descend on the venue in fancy dress. It is as much about the atmosphere as the skill on show, a sporting event like no other.
It is no surprise that this format has been exported to Durham, where darts has gone from strength to strength. Following the huge success of Ally Pally Comes To Durham last year, this Friday sees a Hill versus Bailey encounter at the Student’s Union which has long-since sold out.
There is something about darts in Durham which makes it special. Although it does not come under Team Durham’s remit, it is hugely popular, with over 40 college teams competing across three divisions.
“In Hatfield, [the darts club] has the most members of any club, more than football, more than rugby,” says Nick Harrington, Hatfield captain. “We had cricket, football, darts next to each other at the fresher’s fair – darts was more than anything by about 25 members who had signed up.”
Although darts is by no means exclusive to Durham, it does not enjoy the same status at other universities across the country.
“Whenever I speak to other people, my friends at different universities, and you explain about darts, they never quite comprehend how much of a big deal it is here,” Sam Watson, St Cuthbert’s captain and a member of the University team, explains. “I think if other people did come here and saw what it would be like, they would wonder why that sort of thing doesn’t happen at their own university.”
One of the main reasons behind this is the college system, which means that anyone can play at a level which suits them.
“Obviously, it lends itself to easy access for lots of people of different levels,” Watson says. “I think there’s more avenues for people to get into it. York’s another big darts university, and that is collegiate as well.
“As long as you can stand at the oche and throw a dart, you’re in a pretty good position to improve and get involved with it. And even people who are slightly nervous about playing in a more serious situation, they can start their own teams in the lower leagues and get involved that way.”
Harrington agrees, and says the balance between competitiveness and entertainment is important.
“Because it’s a collegiate system, sport in general in Durham works so much better that way. If you’re playing as a college, you’re playing against your mates from other colleges, you naturally want to win. And so it’s good in the sense that it’s great fun, but it’s also just competitive enough without it being taken too seriously.”
It is not just restricted to boys, either. St Cuthbert’s recently developed a third women’s team, while Harrington says more and more girls are getting involved in the sport at Hatfield.
For those who are not satisfied playing college darts, however, there is the University team. Richard Nicklin, the no.1 seeded player for the upcoming singles University championship and a third-year student at Josephine Butler, captains the side. He says the atmosphere generated is part of the reason behind the rise of the sport in Durham.
“It’s the events afterwards that are a big part of it”, he tells me. “We don’t just have the eight people playing, we have 12 or 13 people come down to watch.”
The social side is a big draw for many students, which Nicklin says “definitely” sets darts apart from other sports at Durham. As the organiser of the night out in Loft after the Monday night fixtures, Watson is heavily involved with this aspect of the game.
“I think there’s a lot of teams that still just like hanging out in their own groups and meet up with friends. But I know for a lot of the teams we play against, we always see them around in the clubs afterwards and you drink with them during the evening. It’s all a good atmosphere.
“It’s very good fun, and the social side is what’s made me enjoy it so much over the last couple of years.”
Predictably, the three answer unanimously when asked how they class darts.
“Sport, 100 percent a sport,” says Watson. “It involves skill, physical skill, throwing – it’s obviously not the most athletic and fitness isn’t required as much but I still think it fits under that category as a sport.”
“The professional stuff is the epitome of what sport can be,” adds Harrington. “It’s not athletic, but the theatre of it, and sport’s moving more and more, say cricket and football, towards the entertainment business.”
But interestingly, opinion is divided when it comes to whether darts should be an official University sport. Nicklin says it should contribute towards BUCS rankings, but Watson is not so sure. Perhaps such a unique sport like darts does not require that kind of validation.
“I don’t think anyone’s particularly pressuring darts to become BUCS,” he says. “I don’t think it needs to, really. Being its own separate organisation, it just means it can be slightly more focused on itself rather than have to comply with more of the Durham University sports regulations.
“It’s a very different set-up, it doesn’t have Wednesday fixtures and Saturday fixtures, it’s solely Monday nights in college bars so there’s probably no need for it to become involved with BUCS.”
The sell-out Ally Pally events at the Student’s Union are proof that darts can hold its own in Durham without becoming a BUCS sport. Both Watson and Harrington are taking part in the Hill-Bailey battle, which they see as a great way of getting even more people involved.
Harrington will play his brother, Ed, in a match which he says he expects to win. With the siblings representing the two sides of the tournament – Ed is at St Aidan’s – it could stretch family ties. Nick lost last time the pair met, but he already has an excuse lined up if he is unable to beat his brother on Friday.
“It’s a big moment in my life, almost too big – it’s a bit sad really.
“The nice thing is that it’s a win-win because we play with two pros [who] come and it’s doubles, so it will be me and a pro versus my brother and a pro, and it will be the same for different matches.
“If I lose I can just blame it on [my brother’s pro] … because the pro is obviously much better than us, but he will have hit the doubles, hit the high scores and my brother won’t have done anything. But if I win, then obviously I’ll claim it for myself.”
With sell-out events such as this, the only question is how much further darts can grow in Durham. “I’d say at the moment darts is at an optimum level,” says Watson. “[There’s] a lot of teams playing, a lot of involvement and a lot of talk around Durham.”
Whatever happens next, for a sport like darts to have carved out such a following in Durham is an achievement in itself.
“It’s amazing how it’s become this big thing in Durham, and not at other unis really,” says Harrington. “For something seemingly so small, to have such an impact, such a wide reach, it’s pretty cool.”
Featured photograph: PeterPan23 via Wikimedia Commons