On Thursday afternoon in the Indigo at the O2 Arena, two men appeared at the British Darts Organisation World Championship filled with enthusiasm for the day of sport ahead. Since darts is synonymous with camp, absurd outfits and alcohol-fuelled fun, both were dressed head to toe in as many French stereotypes as they knew. Matching black berets and striped red and white shirts complemented their outfits with necklaces made of onions or garlic strung across their necks. They cheered passionately for each competitor and waited for others to follow their lead. Not many did.
“It’s a bit disappointing,” said Dean, wearer of the garlic necklace, sighing as he gestured towards the room of a few hundred fans. “There’s not many people. The atmosphere is a bit flat, and we’re the only ones in costume. This could be good if there were more people. I’m surprised there are not more people because it’s in London.”
This has been the story of the BDO worlds, a sporting event that appears to be collapsing in real time. A week before the tournament started, competitors received a letter stating that prize money was to be slashed by an unspecified amount. In the frantic emails that followed, the female players demanded to know the sum of their work and they eventually learned the winner’s fund had been slashed to £8,000 from the £20,000 promised. Quarter-finalists will earn £650 and the male players still do not even know what they are playing for – only that it will be much less than previously stated. At the beginning of the event, 15% of tickets had been sold.
“Happy new year. Your prize money is going to be reduced,” says Tony Martin, darts player and husband of three-times champion and this year’s quarter-finalist, Anastasia Dobromyslova, as he explains the eerie sensation of receiving such a letter. “Des Jacklin [the BDO chairman] didn’t confirm the prize money or wouldn’t confirm the prize money. We pushed and pushed. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that [they] confirmed.”
Australia’s Corrine Hammond, who reached the semi-finals for the first time this year, says that she seriously considered whether she should play: “We were put in the position that we didn’t really know what we were doing. There was a lot of back-and-forth about what is actually happening? What are we playing for? What is the end result?”
Although many believe that the BDO was rotting from long before he took the reins 18 months ago, much of the blame has been directed towards Jacklin, whose promises of progression and increased prize money have crumbled to dust.
The organisation’s unprofessionalism is visible in small and large print, from the official website that looks like a relic from the days of dial-up internet, to the catastrophic World Masters in November, when the draw had to be done twice after some entrants were initially left out.
Nothing quite reflected the dire state of affairs as the decision to set up a GoFundMe page to boost the ladies’ prizes
Shortly afterwards, the World Darts Federation released a statement asserting that it “refuses to be associated with such actions”, promptly rejecting the BDO from its list of recognised darts organisations.
As Fallon Sherrock, the first woman to win a match at the PDC World Championship, quietly dropped out of the BDO women’s tournament after the prize-money issue came to light, nothing quite reflected the dire state of affairs like Martin’s decision to set up a GoFundMe page in order to boost the ladies’ prize fund. On Saturday it stood at just over £2,000.
“The players are probably at their lowest confidence-wise within the board than they ever have been,” he says. “They don’t believe the talk any more. There’s still talk now, are they even going to get this money?”
The BDO worlds are a sporting event driven by elite athletes, but it is difficult to think of any event quite like it. At Alexandra Palace, the PDC world championships crowd drinks hard, dresses up and makes itself heard. During Sherrock’s historic run to the third round, fans mercilessly booed her opponents out of sheer enjoyment, but here in Greenwich the silence is often broken only when the MC implores the crowd to cheer. With the long, empty tables spread across the room, the event feels closer to a wedding reception for a distinctly unpopular couple.
For plenty of fans, the surroundings of the O2 Arena do not quite fit such an event and nostalgia for the event’s historic home of Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green, Surrey was palpable. “I go to the football, I’ve got a season ticket at Chelsea but for me PDC is closer to a football environment,” said Ben, a longtime BDO fan who has attended for 10 years and prefers the amateur, familial scene of the BDO to the PDC.
“In the venue they picked out at the BDO, absolutely you’ve got people drinking all day, we’re drinking all day. But there just seemed to be more families.”
It is widely accepted that one of the reasons for this year’s sparse crowds is the departure from Lakeside, which seemed to be uniquely suited to the dye-in-the-wool darts fans who would stay at the on-site hotel for consecutive days and soak up the atmosphere away from London prices. Even casual fans were keen to discuss their regret of the departure: “[Lakeside was] a kitsch place, very 70s and 80s,” said one fan, who attended with two friends for a “cheap laugh”. “I’ve been there three times and it was fun. Shit, but shit in a fun way.”
As fans and staff pondered the future of the event, the competitors were charged with focusing on winning. There have been two exceptional rising stars alongside Sherrock in women’s darts. Beau Greaves celebrated her 16th birthday on Thursday by vanquishing the third seed, Aileen de Graaf, to reach the semi-finals on her debut. Beyond her prodigious raw ability that already has her averaging above 90, Greaves made her mental fortitude clear. After being pegged back to De Graaf at one set all, she spent the break between sets playing a game on her phone in the locker room. “I just thought, I might as well keep myself entertained,” she said with a chuckle.
After quietly celebrating a new high score, Greaves returned to the podium to obliterate her opponent in the third set. As she was given a surprise birthday cake in the player lounge afterwards, her father, Dave, proudly recounted the journey that took her from her first experience aged 10 to the top levels of darts six years later: “As soon as she threw a dart, I knew she was good,” he said.
In the semi-finals, Greaves was edged out by the defending champion, Mikuru Suzuki. Last month in Alexandra Palace, Suzuki nearly picked off a male rival, James Richardson, just before Sherrock did.
Suzuki has become a sensation in the darts world after winning the title last year without dropping a set. Although Suzuki walks on to the podium to Baby Shark, she carries the aura of a merciless champion and it is growing quickly.
In the coming weeks, Suzuki, Greaves and Sherrock will all be off to PDC qualifying school where they will attempt to qualify for the main tour. The Q-school is tough and there are no guarantees that any of the three will make it as a permanent professional either this year or in the future, but the goal is surely that they will one day rise to the next level and then they will never have to worry about the crumbling walls of the BDO again.