Darts: Doubles all round Is darts sexy now?
ON THE subject of darts, it must be said, I am something of a novice – though I do know a famous name when I hear it, and the one that^s just been uttered has provoked a genuine double-take. Did I hear correctly? Could it be that this once-humble pub sport is played, at top level, by some far more highbrow types than I realised?
Here in the press suite at Ingliston^s Royal Highland Centre, where the Edinburgh leg of the Whyte & Mackay Premier League Darts tournament (a 15-week competition sponsored by the Glasgow-founded whisky company that visits 15 different cities, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen) is underway, I^ve just been introduced to the delightful Tracey King. Tracey is married to one of the top international players and is sufficiently good-humoured to refer to herself as a ^Dwag^, as the darts wives and girlfriends have inevitably been labelled.
Given that I know even less about darts than I do about football (and a minor crush on Frank Lampard is pretty much the extent of my interest there), I first need to ascertain the name of the player to whom Tracey is wed.
"Mervyn King," she says.
What? The Governor of the Bank of England is moonlighting as a darts champ? No wonder Britain^s economy is in such a mess – Mervyn^s been up at the oche! But no: there is another Mervyn King, and among the darts fraternity it^s safe to say he^s enjoying far more popularity than his namesake just now.
It is not, however, the players that I^ve come to meet. Word has it that the traditionally beer-and-testosterone fuelled world of darts is changing, most notably with the advent of big prize money (£400,000 for this tournament, £125,000 of which goes to the winner) and vastly improved TV coverage, plus more women and more affluent under-35s following the sport. This shift is largely thanks to it having found a home on the Sky Sports channel in 1993, where darts is now ranked second – after football – in terms of audience figures. So, is there 21st-century glamour to be found here? It^s my mission to find out.
AS I ENTER the Royal Highland Centre^s indoor arena (capacity 3,500; every available ticket snapped up months ago), there is an assault on the senses which almost makes me turn and bolt. This venue tonight is a miasma of burgers, beer, chips and testosterone – or perhaps Lynx – and a sustained roar that you might once have heard at the Colosseum, when Roman emperors used lions and Christians for sport. (Outside the main entrance, I^d witnessed the surreal sight of seven men dressed as superheroes simultaneously peeing against a wall.)
It^s terrifying. Squaring my shoulders and murmuring a Winslet-like ^Gather!^ to myself, I shove forth through a packed crowd that^s in perpetual motion to find the allotted guest table on the arena floor. This central area in front of the stage is surrounded on three sides by terraced seating seething with humanity (most of it on its feet, singing and chanting).
Already at the table are two familiar faces: radio presenters Grant Stott and Boogie, from Forth 1. Darts fans, or just here for the beer, I ask? Both men, it turns out, have a personal history with the sport. Boogie is a longtime enthusiast who has watched darts on TV since he was six, along with his father, in the days when it was relegated to the late-night graveyard slot on a terrestrial channel. Stott recalls his teen-years job as a programme-seller at Edinburgh^s Playhouse, which used to stage Sunday darts matches. "I saw the best acts there – the Clash, all of them – but there was never an atmosphere like the darts," he says. "It was like a massive stag night every Sunday afternoon, but with a dartboard in the middle of the stage."
Ah, the stage. With so much going on in the audience it^s the last place I think to look – and no wonder. The area of play, decked out with the red-and-black livery of Whyte & Mackay, is so tiny in relation to the size of the arena that we may as well be watching Premier League Sewing. It^s easy to see how Sky Sports has given darts a new lease of life: the huge TV screens mounted high up on every side, demonstrating some dexterous camera work, are where all eyes are trained. Microphones magnify the thud-thud-thud of metal meeting pigskin, and the triumphant cry of "One HUN-dred and EIGHT-taaay!"
Meanwhile, Boogie^s keeping me up to date with the various bursts of music that punctuate the periods of action on stage: "Chase the Sun, by Planet Funk – they all love this one." What are the crowd all chanting, though, I ask? "Barney Army," he replies. "Raymond Van Barneveld – that^s him on stage now – is massively popular."
Good lord, I^m clearly way out of my depth… Even Stott admits the atmosphere has taken him by surprise. "It^s a little bit intimidating," he says politely, all six-foot-plus of him perched on an incongruously dainty gold chair, while bellowing men crash past, swinging cardboard carriers that each hold five pints of lager above our heads. For the record, I^m drinking sauvignon blanc out of a plastic cup, I^ve had cold liquid spilt down my neck more than once and my Prada bag is sitting in a puddle of something that I really do hope is beer. What, I wonder, do the other women in the crowd make of it all?
"It has the potential to be intimidating," says Penny Docherty, an elegant, blonde-haired physiotherapist from Edinburgh who^s in her thirties and a first-timer at Premier League Darts, "but what a fantastic atmosphere!"
She does watch the matches on TV at home – "because my husband always has hold of the remote control" – but admits she^s having a great time and would definitely come again. As would Joanne Smith and Susan Malcolm from Rosyth: "It^s one of the best nights EVER!" yells a very exuberant Susan, whose red-devil outfit, complete with horns and a tight scarlet T-shirt, is hard to ignore. This is her birthday treat ("thirtysomething") and, having watched darts on TV for the past eight years she was extremely chuffed to get tickets. She and her friend are "big Barney fans", but I wonder too if there^s good potential for single women to meet men here?
"Oh yeah, there^s HUNDREDS of men!"
"Yes," adds Joanne, "but they^re all fat and they stink."
Charming. It^s really not that bad, I feel obliged to report: though this does feel like a vast, combined stag-and-hen party, it^s a good-natured crowd and most people have made an effort to dress up. There^s little sign of the oversized beer bellies, comb-overs, shellsuits and gold medallions we once associated with male darts fans: the men here are on the winning side of 35, fairly fit and sporting Diesel jeans, highlighted hair, Celtic band tattoos and trendy leather jackets. The Hawaiian shirt is also a popular garment, which is explained by the appearance of Wayne ^Hawaii 501^ Mardle, a hugely popular 35-year-old player from Essex, who enters the arena to the theme tune of Hawaii 5-0, carrying an inflatable plastic palm tree which he tosses into the cheering crowd as he mounts the stage (it^s all theatre).
He^s here to challenge the reigning champion, Phil ^The Power^ Taylor, as is one of the youngest stars on the circuit, Dutchman Jelle ^The Matador^ Klaasen. I^ve been told he^s ^the Cristiano Ronaldo of darts^ so I^m keen to get a look and see whether he^s been oversold. The answer, surprisingly, is no: the 24-year-old really does bear a resemblance to the Portuguese Man United hero. If anyone^s going to be the first darts player to win sex-symbol status and contracts to advertise aftershave/sunglasses/designer shirts, I^m assured by an insider, it^ll be Klaasen.
With the crowd now standing on chairs and approaching high-doh for the big moment when Taylor appears to defend his title, I decide to retreat to the peace of the press room upstairs and chat to any players^ partners I can find.
In the realm of the darts world^s celebrity spouses, Tracey King, 36, is more your Coleen Rooney type – fresh-faced prettiness, relaxed and friendly – than a Posh or a Cheryl with their inch-thick lipgloss, car-to-bar shoes and starry, high-maintenance composure.
Tracey and Mervyn have been together for seven years, and married for six, though they^ve known each other for almost twice that long, both hailing from the same part of Norfolk. Mervyn King, 43, turned professional with the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in 1997, which meant stepping up to national level from local tournaments. He moved across to the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) in 2007, where his world ranking is now 6th.
Tracey^s pear-green eyes widen when I ask about life as a professional-level Dwag and what rewards it can bring. "Well, we wouldn^t have got our own house before he started playing for the PDC," she says frankly. It also means that Tracey no longer has to work, so for the past two years she has been able to provide full-time support to Mervyn and sometimes join him on the players^ circuit.
"Over three months Mervyn will probably have three or four weekends at home," she says, adding, "but I knew with the PDC that he^d have to be away a lot. I just want him to enjoy it. Luckily, my mum is great and I also have my sister and her kids around." They sound a tight-knit family: sadly, Tracey^s dad died two years ago. He was, she says, a keen darts fan, along with his brothers, to whom she also remains close.
Tracey herself, a slender figure casually but stylishly dressed, prefers to watch Mervyn on TV at home if she can, with her four beloved cats – Max, Coco, Paddy and Mia – because, she admits, "it upsets me if he plays badly". Though she^s a genuinely down-to-earth woman, who "never dreamt I^d become a Dwag, as my ten-year-old nephew calls us", she does enjoy the opportunities she and Mervyn get to dress up and socialise with the other players and their partners. In particular there^s the PDC Annual Awards for which, this year, Tracey^s had a gown made. It cost her £400, but this one^s a big occasion and the other Dwags with whom Tracey is friends – ^we^re like a family, we often get together^ – will be there, no doubt going all-out for glamour too.
Is this just the beginning of a new era and a new image for the sport? "There are some really big tournaments now," Tracey agrees. "Las Vegas in 2008 and now the Whyte & Mackay 15-week tour." The darts scene has changed drastically, she asserts, "and it^s only going to get bigger".
• THE next Whyte & Mackay Premier League Darts fixtures take place at SECC Glasgow tonight and at AECC Aberdeen on 23 April. See www.planetdarts.tv and www.whyteandmackay.co.uk
Story By: The Scotsman