Is Darts the New Wrestling?
Team GB: Who could ever rouse themselves to give a shit?
Right now, British sport is languishing in an era of professional blandness. An era of kissed badges, endlessly credited gaffers and pretending to fancy Sue Barker on A Question of Sport. An era of "Team GB". Our sportsmen and women have no interest in being the hard-living Roy Of The Rovers we all want them to be. They don't even possess the rabid hyper-professionalism of someone like Roy Keane, and he was essentially just a dog in a football kit.
Instead, they're nylon cyborgs with lantern jaws and French crops, the dullest kids from school grown up and biting their tongues for that big Shredded Wheat paycheck at the finishing line. Football in particular is trying hard for icons right now – for every Mario Balotelli there are countless Gareth Barrys or James Milners, men who look like they'd be perfectly happy to wile away their Saturdays hanging about in leisure centres if they were rewarded with millions of pounds to do so.
It's not necessarily their fault, but the media has tricked us into believing that sportsmen should double as role models for British youth. If "Hurricane" Higgins head-butted a referee these days, somebody would equate it to the rise of knife crime. He'd be accused of setting a bad example, outcast from snooker society and forced to live as a vagabond in a caravan beneath the Westway.
So where are the next generation of sporting madmen? For the answer, we must turn away from "real" sport, and look towards the world of "sports entertainment". The term was first coined by pro wrestling to subtly hip people to the fact that it, well, isn't real. And although in some ways it's the "realest" shit out there, the world of darts is as much entertainment as it is sport.
The main similarity, other than both of them being popular in the 70s, is that darts and wrestling are both almost completely personality-based. The career of a wrestler or dartist (I know) can sink or float on the back of their persona. There's good guys, bad guys, mad guys and sad guys. They come as diverse as Phil "The Power" Taylor (indomitable, but with a sexual assault charge under his belt), Ted Hankey (a shit-stirring real ale vampire), Martin "Wolfy" Adams (A hirsute old gent, looks like an amiable blacksmith) and Paul Nicholson (provincial badboy, wears aviators, entrance music is Kasabian).
Because the companies who sponsor them look for character, not compliance, the players are encouraged to cultivate a persona rather than deny one, to play up to their idiosyncrasies and their weaknesses rather than glossing them over to seem more professional. Rafael Nadal is considered a bit cocky in the world of tennis, but if he played darts he'd probably come on dressed as a Matador to "Livin' La Vida Loca".
Darts really understands personality branding and isn't afraid to milk it. Look at Tony O'Shea – he's a very fat man, but he sees no reason to massage the truth. Instead, he calls himself "Silverback" and waddles up to the oche like this:
Darts has really embraced the power of spectacle in a way that only wrestling really has before. Boxers have always had lavish entrances, for sure, but there's very little participation there. They're too focused on not dying to do animal impressions. Which is a shame. Plus, they're all either Slavic punching robots or preening drug cheats these days. The stars of sports entertainment however, really know how to put on a show. There's indoor fireworks, High Street Honeys, neckless bouncers and regional trash-talking. The crowd dish it out, and the dartists serve it back with panto precision.
The fans are a big part of the darts spectacle, and they've even deemed it fitting to replace "God Save the Queen" with their own national anthem: "Chelsea Dagger", a song far catchier and more evocative of Modern Britain than the imperialist dirge the Queen recorded back in the 1980s or whatever decade that song's from. The fans are there to be entertained. They aren't sat in the cold waiting for a broken leg, forced to queue 15 minutes to pay £6.50 for a warm Carlsberg and then to neck it because the game's started back up again. No, darts fans are already pissed. They turn up pissed. Half of them look like they woke up pissed, but who gives a shit? It's darts!
How many Rugby Union matches do you see people reaching for the lasers at?
The other progressive quality that darts has in common with wrestling is that it's gender-equal. I doubt that Gloria Steniem has ever written a feminist treatise about Chyna's victory in her 1999 intercontinental title fight against Jeff Jarret, but it's a moment that should be up there with the '68 Black Power salutes. Darts has Anastasia "The Russian Beauty" Dobromyslova and Trina "The Golden Girl" Gulliver. I know what you're thinking, but they're not exactly the shy, retiring types. The federations don't seem to be run by the blazer-and-badge old boys network, but by entrepreneurs who want to thrill their audiences with drama. Gender conventions don't matter to them; if you can play, you can play.
Sports Entertainment may still be seen as sport's awkward half-brother, but like in Rain Man, the older, more respectable brother can learn from its rough and ready sibling. I'm sure the cynics are going to say that all the pizzaz and story-lining are making up for the limitations of what are, respectively, a boring pub game and a fake sport played by failed stuntmen. But I struggle to believe that anyone who's seen Raymond "Barney" Von Barneveld trying to finish on a double top, or witnessed Mankind's "Hell In A Cell" belly-flop, would ever be able to thrill in the same way at the sight of Jenson Button doing the Running Man with James Corden at a Rizzle Kicks gig.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive