Mardle bullish about the future as figures show only football attracting more viewers

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With Andy Murray’s phenomenal career signed and sealed in the last fortnight, first with his ascent to the top of the ATP rankings, and then in dismantling Novak Djokovic in the season-ending World Tour Finals, the question has inevitably been raised as to whether he now stands out as Britain’s greatest ever sportsman.

While Murray’s credentials are clear: two Wimbledon crowns, two Olympic gold medals, a US Open title, a Davis Cup winner, a host of other Grand Slam final appearances, two Sports Personality of the Year awards (with surely another on the way) and the cherry on the cake coming in the form of the number one ranking; Wayne Mardle offers up a popular alternative as we look forward to the upcoming PDC World Championships.

“God, if it wasn’t for Phil [Taylor], the sport might not have been on TV”, he tells me.

Not only is darts now very much a televised sport, it is thriving on multiple platforms. Over two million people viewed Sky Sports’ digital content during the 2015 World Championships and last year, remarkably, only football racked up more television viewers over the course of the year. This year alone, Sky have shown the Betway Premier League, World Cup of Darts, BetVictor World Matchplay, the World Grand Prix and the SINGHA Beer Grand Slam of Darts, even before Sky Sports dedicate a specific channel to the sport ahead of the year-ending main event. ITV have the rights to a further ten events, while BBC couldn’t resist a piece of this increasingly lucrative product, holding the inaugural Champions League of Darts.

For Mardle, who joined the PDC as a professional in 2002, what his sport has achieved since has been well beyond even his wildest dreams.

“Not even Barry Hearn and Sky Sports couldn’t have envisaged such a boom. It’s been a joint effort from all concerned.”

As he mentions, Taylor’s influence in all this cannot be underestimated. No British sportsman has ever dominated his peers in the same way that The Power has done since making his BDO debut 29 years ago. His longevity has been at the forefront of his success and eighty-one premier event titles since 1987 place him in a league of one, streets ahead of anyone to have ever picked up a dart. As a 56 year-old, he remains the world’s fourth best player, according to the PDC Order of Merit. Many argue that his time is up on the biggest of stages, that he lacks the stamina to keep up with the younger generation in the set-based format that the World Championships entail.

Michael van Gerwen, the undisputed best player in the world, has won 24 tournaments in this year alone. Even the Dutchman, however, when he spoke to Palatinate in 2014, was effusive in his praise of Taylor’s part in the sport’s staggering rise.

“Phil is the best there ever. In future years when he has retired people will say it is easier to be number one so I am so happy to achieve that when he is still playing at his best. He has done everything for darts and we all owe him a lot.”

So too, does the sport owe a debt to Barry Hearn and those who’ve taken darts from its deepest depths in 1989 when funding was cut and money in the sport at an all-time low. The transformation from pub game to arena filler has been astounding, confounding many critics who believed the sport’s rising popularity to be a flash in the pan.

2009 LADBROKES.COM PDC WORLD DARTS CHAMPIONSHIP.ALEXANDRA PALACE,LONDON 30/12/08PIC;LAWRENCE LUSTIGROUND 3WAYNE MARDLE(ENG) V CO STOMPE(NED)WAYNE MARDLE IN ACTION

“Every element is structured towards being as perfect and professional as possible”, Mardle explains. “Money changes everything. The prize money is high, that means there is responsibility from all concerned. The fans want to watch a great product. Without people paying to watch, the sport would struggle.”

In Mardle’s mind, this is the pinnacle. The Olympics, as has been mooted by some who see the knockout format as ideal for the Games, is a non-starter.

“If it just carries on and stays as big as it is right now, that’ll be fine.”

Carrying on in the same vein would mean the continued split between PDC and BDO. For Mardle, this is something that he cannot see changing.

“No [the two cannot work together].” He does, though, dispel one myth about the relationship between the organisations.

“There is no rivalry. Seriously, there isn’t.”

Mardle himself, though a four-time PDC World Championship semi-finalist and now the lead pundit on Sky Sports’ coverage, was, like many of his PDC peers, a member of the BDO for a long period before making the profitable move.

Though he paints a picture of calm cooperation between the two boards, the same has not always been the case. The Tomlin Order was set up in 1997 to prevent the PDC from, in effect, poaching the BDO’s top talent. And a decade later, Dutchmen Raymond van Barneveld and Jelle Klaasen caused controversy by contravening the settlement by moving across. Recent years, however, have seen something of a thaw in the tension, leading to Martin Wolfie Adams, the three-time BDO world champion  and long-time defender of the organisation, competing in the predominantly PDC Grand Slam of Darts.

Despite these strides, the upcoming World Championships at London’s Alexandra Palace will remain a PDC affair.

For Mardle, it is the zenith of the sport.

“The World Championship means more than the others”, he explains. The tournament saw some of his greatest moments, as well as some of his lowest. His epic quarter-final victory over Phil Taylor in 2008 was the only time in the entire decade that Taylor didn’t reach the showpiece tournament’s final. Yet, the victory is marred by a semi-final defeat to little-known 21-year-old qualifier Kirk Shepherd.

Mardle’s response, however, is exactly what you’d expect from the persona of Hawaii 501 – a nickname coined by the legendary Bobby George.

A loss of form in 2009 saw Mardle fall away from the upper reaches of the sport – a fall from which he never fully recovered when it came to challenging for titles.

“Regret is a wasted emotion”, he says. “Some have their time at the top, mine was from 1999 to 2010. It wasn’t a case of ‘dartitus’, where you can’t even release the dart. I still play exhibitions today.”

He will, as always, be running the rule over this year’s hopefuls at Ally Pally, with Van Gerwen, Taylor, Gary Anderson, Peter Wright and Adrian Lewis all fancying their chances of glory.

Though he ranks MVG as the best around, he’s tipping Lewis to triumph on 2nd January and claim his third world title. Whatever happens, it is sure to be entertaining and if Taylor can claim an unlikely seventeenth title, the argument surrounding Britain’s greatest will take yet another twist.

Photographs: PDC/Lawrence Lustig

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