Commercialisation has dramatically transformed the world sporting landscape in ways that are difficult to comprehend. While the promotion of sport has historically focused on participation and the educational value it could serve, today its promotion is fuelled by spectatorship and commodification.
This changing meaning of sport is perhaps most clearly evident in darts – which is now hyper-commercialised.
The emergence and consolidation of darts as a pre-eminent world sport will be on show this weekend when the superstars of the darting world, such as “The Flying Scotsman” Gary Anderson, Phil “The Power” Taylor and Stephen “The Bullet” Bunting, take centre stage at the Sydney Darts Masters.
A look at darts might provide insights into where we are heading with other sports.
Decoupling media exposure and sport participation
Historically, there has been a correlation between media exposure through TV and pay-per-view television and growth in participants. For example, the exposure of netball and Australia’s success at the recent World Cup will likely result in an increase in player numbers next year and in the years to come.
Over the last two decades, the growth of darts on TV has paradoxically correlated with a decline in playing numbers. Even though darts has been played in Australia for more than 100 years, dartboards are rarely found in any public spaces. Most Australian pubs, which have a strong link to sport, no longer have dartboards.
While physical education is mandated in schools and should include “target sports” – of which darts is considered one – there is largely no organised darts. The only public space to throw a few darts is at a couple of stalls at the Easter Show, where you hit balloons.
This weekend, many people who have never thrown a dart will part with their hard-earned to watch the sport’s superstars. The venues where these events are held are large. The Sydney Darts Masters is taking place at the former Sydney Entertainment Centre, which holds more than 10,000 people.
Sport as secondary to spectacle
The growth of darts raises issues about what is sport. Is it a sport? Is it a spectacle? Or is it something else?
It is often argued that there is very little athleticism associated with darts. What is clear is that media attention focuses on aspects other than skill and athleticism.
The sport itself, it seems, is secondary to the entertainment that accompanies it.
Sport unfettered by morality
Then there is the morality of it all. Imperial Tobacco formerly sponsored the World Darts Championships. When tobacco sponsorship was banned other companies were ready to get on board.
Darts is also in bed with both betting and alcohol companies. A cursory look at the sponsors of any major event reveals a host of betting agencies and alcohol companies. There is also an assortment of debt collectors and junk food companies.
Professional darts’ biggest competition is the “Betway” Premier League Darts. This is shown live on Sky Sports in the UK. The venues are not family-friendly. The crowd is made up primarily of men who drink far too much.
Then there is the perception that athletes should promote healthy lifestyles. That is to say, we believe athletes are a powerful force in shaping youths’ lives. They look up to them, and athletes are powerful.
It is debatable if this occurs at all with darts, even though there are clearly no drug cheats in this sport. Professional darts is largely played by overweight, middle-aged white guys who drink lots of alcohol and have lots of tattoos. While they are only allowed to drink water on stage, it is not clear if many of them could run 100 metres.
There is a paradox. The sport’s rise at the elite, commercialised level has:
coincided with a decline in participation;
resulted in prioritising entertainment over sport;
associated the sport with negative social forces; and
promoted the players, who are hardly positive role models.
Nevertheless, for those of us addicted to the sport: