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From pub to palace: The PDC’s Matt Porter on darts’ global expansion

Ahead of the PDC World Darts Championship, SportsPro spoke to PDC chief executive Matt Porter about the sport’s growth, championing women, and its broadcast strategy.

10 December 2018 Nick Friend

“We put a map of the world in front of us and we try and colour it all in,” says Matt Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) as he discusses the upcoming PDC World Darts Championship.

On 13th December, the biggest fortnight in the sport’s year will commence at London’s Alexandra Palace. It is a timeslot – beginning before Christmas and reaching its conclusion on New Year’s Day – that has become synonymous with both the competition and a sport enjoying a growth in popularity unprecedented in its history.

The culmination of the PDC’s commitment to global expansion is laid bare in the structure of this year’s tournament. The razzmatazz of the historic arena, complete with the beer-filled enthusiasm of singing and dancing fans adorned in fancy dress, will be met with an increased and enhanced competition.

The overall prize-fund has risen to UK£2.5 million, while a field of 72 competitors has risen to 96, with the 24 new places at the sport’s top table handed to qualifiers from around the world and – for the first time – the guarantee of two female players. Players from 28 nations – and all six continents – will compete for a UK£500,000 winner’s cheque. It is the sport’s biggest ever competition.

With a 3,000-seat capacity, the tournament’s 28 sessions sell out with few issues. The 2018 final was watched in the UK on Sky Sports – which dedicates a channel to the sport for the duration of the tournament – by 1.4 million people, while a further 2.7 million watched on from Germany.

It was a final that further boosted the sport’s commercial appeal, with Rob Cross, an electrician and part-time player only a year beforehand, defeating the sport’s long-time flagbearer Phil Taylor in his final match before retirement.

The fairytale of Cross’ victory has given the PDC what Porter calls its “Leicester City moment”.

Rob Cross, improbably, goes into his second PDC World Championship as reigning champion, while Russia's Anastasia Dobromyslova took one of two places guaranteed to female players.

The story of Cross’ triumph and its coverage in the aftermath have, in part, made the expansion of this year’s tournament a logical next step. The timing of Cross’ victory – coinciding with the exit of Taylor, the game’s long-time flagbearer, could scarcely have been more appropriate.

Quite simply, a decade ago, darts may have struggled to cope with the retirement of a 16-time world champion. It is why, for all of his trophies, Taylor’s greatest influence on his sport may well have come in providing a growing product with an enduring world-class figurehead.

This year’s tournament will be the first ever without Taylor and it is, perhaps, fitting that his departure should be met with an expanded field, such was his role in growing the game.

Speaking of the event’s development, Porter explains: “We call it a World Championship, so we want it to be representative of the best players from all around the world.

“Most people know that the best players come from the UK and the Netherlands, among others. But that’s not to say that if you’re from Brazil like Diogo Portela, or Japan like Seigo Asada, that you shouldn’t have the opportunity to represent your country on the biggest stage of all.

“Ally Pally is the holy grail of darts. It is what everybody that picks up a dart wants to do.”

It is one of the reasons that the sport has introduced two qualifying spots for women. As Porter stresses, the PDC has never had a women’s tour, but nor has it ever possessed a men’s tour – the playing circuit is an open shop, with male and female players playing against each other. It is a characteristic that places darts – at least conceptually – in a tiny sporting bracket.

The game’s global growth is in its accessibility, a feature that extends to gender. Gayl King and Anastasia Dobromyslova have taken part in previous incarnations of the World Championship, while China’s Momo Zhou was part of her nation’s World Cup pair earlier this year.

The guaranteed places – won by Dobromyslova and England’s Lisa Ashton – are key in the PDC’s plans for future progression.

“What we are doing now is reacting to the direction of travel of women’s sport and the importance of having female role models for women who want to participate in a certain sport,” Porter says.

“By ensuring that there are going to be two lady players at the World Championship, we are trying to put those role models in place for ladies who want to play darts.

“We have seen our audience change from 90 per cent men and ten per cent women to 70 per cent male and 30 per cent female now. There is growing female interest in darts, and it is a sport that women can play without restriction in the same way that anyone can.

“It’s not a sport that requires a huge amount of space, time, equipment, money – it’s a sport that you can play in your home relatively cheaply and easily without a huge financial commitment. It is a real advantage for the sport.”

Indeed, it is a benefit that has enabled Porter and chairman Barry Hearn, who holds a similar role at sports promotions giant Matchroom Sport, to take the sport further afield. 2018 has seen tournaments held in four continents, spanning from Las Vegas through to Auckland.

Canada's John Part was the first non-Brit to win world titles in both the BDO and PDC codes of the sport.

However, as Porter stresses, there is no desperate fervour to conquer the world, rather one to understand the extent of the sport’s global potential, mastering each region organically.

“We choose our growth territories quite carefully, based on a number of factors,” he explains. “One is the amount of darts played in that country – does the general public have a base knowledge of what darts is, what a dartboard looks like, that you have to throw three darts at it. I know that sounds very basic but it is something of a prerequisite.

“The second thing is whether we feel that a sport culturally works there and the third thing is do we achieve any TV exposure there, which is our biggest advert for the product.

“The key thing under our expansion is that we go into the right places at the right time. We don’t just go into a country just for the sake of going into a country. We haven’t got a burning desire to have tournaments in 200 countries around the world.

“We’d rather wait and get it right than rush it for the sake of it.

“We will have tournaments in the right number of countries and if that takes us a little bit longer to tick boxes in certain countries, then that’s fine because we’d rather not rush it and go into a country that isn’t ready for one of our events or somewhere that doesn’t really understand how we work.

“People come to the sport to enjoy themselves. It’s not like going to watch your football team and when they lose you go home unhappy. We put on an entertaining show – it’s good fun, you go with your friends, you have a drink, you can dance to the music, you can cheer to the walk-ons and you can boo players if you don’t like them. It’s a good theatrical environment.

We have seen our audience change from 90 per cent men and ten per cent women to 70 per cent male and 30 per cent female now.

“But also, people appreciate the skill involved in what the players are accomplishing. It’s that blend of sport and entertainment that I think we have got pretty much spot on at the moment.”

A traditionally English sport with an intrinsic stereotype of pub culture origins, one challenge facing the game’s global rise is in approaching regions where customs differ from the sport’s most established territories.

“There have to be different ways of doing business and different ways of staging events in different territories,” Porter emphasises. “There are areas that are culturally very different to what we are used to.

“If you look at our key overseas markets – Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and countries like that, they are culturally very similar to the UK.

“It’s when you go to Japan or China that you have to adapt to the way of working over there and people’s practices. That’s fine – it’s not a problem. It just means that we have to be careful with which partners select over there in those territories and how we approach business there.”

What is clear, however, is that the expansion methods have had the desired impact. The PDC Asian Tour was launched in March, with South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia all involved in hosting more than ten annual events. 206 players signed up for the inaugural season.

Unicorn, the only darts brand officially associated with the PDC worldwide, acts as the Asian circuit’s official supplier.

At the sport’s top end, the effect of the global efforts has been stark. While the top ten players at the 2008 World Championship were either English or Dutch, a decade on the same seeds are represented by seven different nations, with only one player appearing on both lists. It is a changing of the guard in keeping with the sport’s global growth.

For Porter, fundamental to the improvement is the sport’s coverage both on television and digital platforms. It has brought the game to a worldwide mainstream.

In the UK, Sky Sports holds the broadcasts to six of the PDC's televised majors and has been the main broadcaster of PDC competition's since the body's foundation in 1993.

Few other sports in the UK are broadcast live on Sky Sports, ITV and the BBC. Indeed, with the PDC’s rival body the British Darts Organisation (BDO) signing a deal to have its own World Championship broadcast on Eurosport from 2019, having previously been shared by Channel Four and BT Sport in its prior broadcast deal, few sports can boast visibility across such an array of linear networks.

It does mean, however, that finding the balance between free-to-air and subscription television has become key in maximising the PDC product.

“The importance of a wide-reaching audience is critical,” Porter acknowledges. “But that’s not to say that we don’t attract a decent-sized and dedicated following on subscription television.”

Indeed, darts is one of Sky’s best-performing sports – alongside golf’s Ryder Cup and Masters and cricket’s Ashes series, the PDC World Championship is one of the few events to receive a ‘pop-up channel’ from Sky Sports, with Sky Sports Darts becoming the home of the sport for the duration of the tournament.

“Freeview coverage is fantastic, but you are going to get your dedicated fans and knowledgeable fans through subscription TV,” Porter explains.

“You’re also going to get the opportunity to air hundreds of hours on subscription television, whereas you might not on free-to-air. We pick and choose our broadcast partners carefully, and we balance subscription and free-to-air.

“We try to make the sport accessible to everybody but also to preserve the balance for people who are desperate to watch as much darts as they can.”

It is one reason that – in the World Championship, Premier League, World Cup of Darts, World Matchplay, World Grand Prix and Grand Slam of Darts, Sky holds the UK rights to six of the sport’s majors.

If we wanted to do every event at the O2 Arena and sell 18,000 tickets, we would do that. But that isn’t our aim – the event has to be right for its venue.

However, the BBC’s arrival on the PDC scene in 2016 with the Champions League of Darts was hugely significant as a measure of the sport’s rise.

A long-time broadcast partner of the PDC’s BDO adversary, the decision to climb onto the PDC juggernaut with a newly created tournament speaks volumes for the quality of product served up by the PDC.

Abroad, demand remains equally strong, with over-the-top (OTT) platform DAZN and Sport1 sharing the sport’s broadcast rights in Germany, while Fox Sports hold the rights in Australia. In the US, more than 1.3 million people per week tuned in to watch this year’s Unibet Premier League coverage on pay-TV channel BBC America.

Yet, in the changing sports media landscape, the PDC’s in-house PDC-TV OTT service, launched in conjunction with streaming giant StreamAMG, also serves a vital role.

While initially set up with the intention of serving those territories without access to live darts, it has come to serve an additional purpose, with the sport’s obsessive fanbase treating the platform as a good value accessory and a vehicle for additional darting action.

“Since we have started streaming additional content, we have become able to go deeper into events that are also shown on mainstream television,” Porter explains.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a way of attracting new fans particularly. It might be in certain untapped markets, but that is on a small scale. It is an excellent addition to your viewing opportunities if you are a dedicated darts fan.

“Our main aim is to deliver quality content. We look at what football clubs charge and Tennis TV and those other platforms and their price points. We look at the hours of content and the quality of content that these platforms provide.

“We put a lot of effort into our production. We have six or seven cameras, commentary, graphics. It’s not just a single lock-off camera with no audio, which is what you see from some events.”

The success thus far of PDC-TV, as well as consistently strong ticket sales, have been crucial in informing Porter’s judgement of where his sport sits with its fans. Saturation point, he says, has not been reached.

Although happy to admit that the UK will not be seeing more major events added to its calendar, other options remain comparatively endless, with PDC-TV acting as a solid gauge of interest in the sport’s regular tour competition.

Alexandra Palace has become a venue synonymous with the World Championship for both players and fans alike.

“With the European and the Pro Tour, you can’t really oversaturate that market,” he says. “The people that want to watch that will want to watch darts. Full stop. They will just pick and choose what they want to watch from that subscription platform.

“They are very unlikely to unsubscribe because there’s too much live content on there. In these days of multiple choice with subscription and free-to-air, there are thousands and thousands of ways to consume live media and live sport.

“I’m not really worried about over-saturation from a broadcast perspective. If anything, if we put on events and we can’t sell any tickets, that’s maybe when we’re being shown that people have had enough. We haven’t had that trend either, though.”

With the enthusiasm for tickets to showing no signs of subsiding, there have long-since been mooted suggestions from beyond the PDC that the sport’s showpiece World Championship could be moved from its Alexandra Palace home, having arrived at the venue in 2007.

For Porter, however, the concept is a non-starter. Quite simply, Ally Pally – as it is affectionately known – has become an arena seeped in World Championship tradition.

“It’s all about telling a story,” he says. “The event becomes synonymous with a venue and even the particular time of year.

“The World Matchplay is in the summer and the World Championships are at Christmas, the Premier League is on a Thursday night. People get to know and understand the schedule and the locations in the same way that we know that the Cup Final is at Wembley in May.

“It’s not just a question of selling more and more tickets. The venue has to be right for the event that it’s hosting.

“At Ally Pally, people ask why we don’t just move it over to the Big Hall. Well, the event wouldn’t work in the Big Hall.

“You would lose the atmosphere and logistically, the way that we lay out the bars, the facilities and the offices, the layout wouldn’t work. So, we are staying where we are. That’s not a problem.

“If we wanted to do every event at the O2 Arena and sell 18,000 tickets, we would do that. But that isn’t our aim. The event has to be right for its venue.

“The Winter Gardens is synonymous with the World Matchplay, the 02 has become the home of the Premier League Final, Ally Pally is the home of the World Championships.

“There are a lot of factors that go into the brand of the event, well beyond the capacity.”

However, as the PDC continues to take on the world, new markets are being met with new venues and new standard-bearers. Bundesliga club FC Schalke 04’s Veltins Arena saw 20,210 fans take in the German Darts Masters in June – a world record for an attendance at a darts event.

When I first started, players had their mate’s taxi company as their sponsor

Four months earlier, more than 12,000 were at Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena for a night of Unibet Premier League action. It is a far cry from Stoke-on-Trent’s 400-seat capacity Kings Hall, which hosted the inaugural Premier League night in 2005.

It is a pathway symbolic of a rapid and unflinching growth perhaps best encapsulated by Porter himself.

“When I first started, players had their mate’s taxi company as their sponsor,” he laughs. Cross, still only in his second year as a professional, signed a partnership with software giant SAP in March.

It is, perhaps, the greatest mark of how far the sport has come. “They are professionalised sportsmen now,” he states. “Those who look after them are credible and look after them as players, but also as brands.”

As more than 80,000 people flock to Alexandra Palace for Christmas’ hottest sporting ticket and darts’ biggest ever tournament, they will see for themselves the enormity of a sport, whose popularity only continues to rise.

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