LONDON (Reuters) - A burly man squeezed into a nurse’s outfit, and carrying a four-pint jug of beer in each hand, lurched across the floor into the arms of Snow White and an assortment of Elves.
Elsewhere in the Great Hall at London’s iconic Alexandra Palace, a motley crew of skeletons, nuns, Elvis Presleys, matadors, and rather disheveled Santas, were partying hard — all in the name of darts.
For 14 days either side of Christmas this is the World Darts Championship — the self-proclaimed pinnacle of a traditional sport played in bars and pubs across the world and now experiencing boom times in Britain.
Each night, 2,500 fans assemble at the 150-year-old venue known as the People’s Palace, to watch the likes of 16-times world champion Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Dutch master Raymond van Barneveld pepper a dartboard with tungsten missiles.
That is the basic premise, anyway, although dartboards are 18 inches across and from the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium, especially after a few ales have sunk in, following the trajectory of a dart is nigh on impossible.
Two giant video screens flank the oche, the line behind which throwers stand, so the crowd can see what is going on but a large majority don’t really seem too concerned.
They keep up a cacophony of noise even when players are fixing their gaze on a double 16 or a bullseye.
Now and then the din is punctuated by the announcer’s roar of “One Hundred and eighhhhhhhhhty” as three darts nestle in the treble 20 — the darts equivalent of a six in cricket or a baseball home run — and the crowd go wild.
“It’s crazy, sometimes I find myself watching the outfits,” Van Barneveld, who finished off Austria’s Rowby-John Rodriguez in round one with a 170 checkout, told reporters.
“At the back they’re not even watching the darts, they’re celebrating, but we can’t do without them, they are amazing. You come off the stage and everyone is chanting Barmy Army!”
The phenomenal success of the World Darts Championship has been overseen by Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) chairman Barry Hearn, whose expertise in marrying sport with entertainment has also benefited snooker and boxing.
During his stewardship Hearn has launched Premier League Darts, a World Series with stops in Dubai, Sydney and Singapore and negotiated a lucrative five-year TV deal with Sky Sports last year as well as a host of European broadcasters.
New talent such as current world and European champion Michael van Gerwen from the Netherlands and England’s Michael Smith, who stunned Taylor last year, have emerged while the Tour attracts players from as far afield as Australia, Japan, Germany, the Philippines and South Africa.
The championship prize pot is 1.25 million pounds ($1.94 million) with the winner getting 250,000.
Hearn also moved the event, which vies for superiority with the British Darts Organisation (BDO) world championships, from a nightclub on the eastern extremities of London’s sprawl, to the magestic Alexandra Palace in 2007.
That increased the capacity from 700 to 2,500 and such is the demand for tickets for the festive extravaganza that next year’s capacity could be raised to more than 4,000.
While watching the championships from an armchair might be the most comfortable solution for darts enthusiasts, that would be missing the point, says Dan Jones who made a four-hour journey from Leeds to sample the unique atmosphere.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” Jones, dressed in bright yellow and orange jockey’s silks, told Reuters.
“I’m not a massive darts fan, it’s all about the atmosphere. It’s fantastic. I watch a little bit of the darts but basically it’s a chance to dress up in a weird costume and have a few drinks. It’s all part of Christmas.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Alan Baldwin