Darts is on verge of seismic shift thanks to Luke Littler

Luke Littler - Darts is on brink of seismic shift thanks to Luke Littler
Right now, Luke Littler could be a future great of the sport - PA/Zac Goodwin

The sell-out crowd that were packed into Alexandra Palace provided one particularly deafening verdict but it is the numbers now seeping in from every corner of the globe that suggest a sport on the cusp of a seismic shift.

Sky Sports has been synonymous with darts ever since the Professional Darts Corporation launched its version of the World Championships 30 years ago and, in the space of just 12 days, the Luke Littler effect is breaking records off the board as well as on it.

The current championships are on course to surpass all viewing figures even from the Phil Taylor era, with Saturday night coming in at a peak of 1.36 million for Littler’s 4-1 win against Raymond van Barneveld – a huge number for any live sport outside of the terrestrial world.

The sense of an audience being converted far beyond the fancy dress-wearing, beer-drinking Ally Pally disciples is also confirmed by even a cursory scroll through social media. “Littler gets bigger every match,” declared Gary Lineker, the former England football captain, summing up the sense of an emerging talent transcending his sport.

Luke Littler - Darts is on brink of seismic shift thanks to Luke Littler
Luke Littler has been the story of the World Darts Championship so far - Shutterstock/David Cliff

It is all no surprise to the ever-optimistic Barry Hearn, whose Matchroom company owns the PDC and has been a driving force behind both darts and snooker’s push into the mainstream of British sport over the past 40 years.

“Darts is Matchroom’s biggest business it’s bigger than boxing – and has become a huge global business,” Hearn told Telegraph Sport. “I’ve always said that I think darts is a working man’s golf. It’s ordinary people with extraordinary ability.

“My wife’s highly critical of everything I do and suddenly she’s saying, ‘This kid is amazing’. It’s a pretty good measuring stick for the British and world population.”

Hearn asserts that golf gets “really terrible viewing numbers” and, ahead of the negotiation that will follow, then notes that the PDC’s contract with Sky is due to expire in only 18 months. “Like everything else, my job is to maximise the income of the players and entertain the public,” he says.

In that, he clearly believes that Littler’s emergence represents a potentially game-changing moment for a tour that has been quietly built from the top down during the PDC’s long but successive battle for hegemony in darts.

Critical in that have been places like the academy in St Helens where Littler honed his talent and a structure overseen by Steve Brown, the founder and chairman of the Junior Darts Corporation, that is all about creating playing opportunities for children a good decade before they can legally buy a drink. It all means that a darts apprenticeship need not now begin in a pub.

“A lot of thought goes into how do we keep the door open to people with appropriate talent – and this kid hasn’t opened the door, he’s smashed it down,” says Hearn.

“It goes beyond personality because he is such an attractive player to watch. Even if you weren’t a darts fan you would go, ‘Blimey, his knowledge of numbers and counting is exemplary. His brain and speed are phenomenal’. This kid is very different. People are going, ‘Who is that 16 year old?’ Something happens that you hadn’t anticipated and you think, ‘Bloody hell, there’s a whole new level ... a whole new audience’.”

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