• PDC World Darts Championship

Better than football? Why fans flock to watch the darts

Rob Bartlett at Alexandra Palace
December 19, 2014
Welcome to the PDC World Championship at Alexandra Palace - normal clothing optional © Lawrence Lustig

"Why do we come here? The atmosphere, it's incredible. There's nothing quite like the darts at Christmas."

An hour before the start of the PDC World Championship and it's a fiesta of bizarre, jovial chaos in the fans' village at Alexandra Palace as the Great Hall, an extraordinary coliseum of colour, welcomes punters on their arrival.

The decorations have changed this year; the traditional, identifiable red of the world championships has been replaced by a hypnotic blue. But the surreal scenes remain: this could be the only event in Great Britain at which you can walk past fans dressed as a herd of shepherds followed by Wonder Woman and four giant beer bottles when there isn't a marathon being run.

"The crowds are mental, awesome," Dietmar, dressed in a shiny purple wig and leather jacket having travelled from Germany the night before, tells ESPN. "I saw it on television last year and thought 'I must come to London'."

Fans travel from around the world to watch the PDC World Championship © Lawrence Lustig

Two men from Galway, Ireland, have also made the trip for the first time and are sat on a picnic bench, curiously watching a group of penguins queue for food before they enter the West Hall, where the main stage is situated. One of the men is in a sky-blue shell suit.

"It's the spirit," he says when asked about his attire. "You see it on television and you immediately want to get involved. We only got our tickets a couple of months ago, we're big darts fans but have never been to the world championship. It looks fantastic."

Some of the 'Ally Pally' veterans hold a slightly different view. One, dressed as Dennis the Menace in homage to 1994 champion Dennis Priestley, says: "The atmosphere is great but - maybe it shows how old I am - I'm here for the darts. It's great drama."

The opening match of the tournament, featuring PDC World Youth Champion Keegan Brown and three-time world champion John Part, is minutes away. The giant beer bottles are loitering in the noisy vestibule - what on earth would possess them all to walk up the steep Alexandra Palace hill in those costumes?

"This is standard - par for the course," one of them says nonchalantly. "We all decided to wear them for the final hour in the office today, which was interesting. This is the spirit of the world championships: people come, dress up and enjoy themselves."

It's affordable, too, with tickets starting at just £25 per session. PDC master of ceremonies John McDonald, who announces the players, explains: "It's not terribly expensive and you're very close to the action.

"It's fun and people can enjoy a party atmosphere. Everything is designed for fans to have a good time. It's a better atmosphere than a football match because you don't have so many people here wanting just one player to win. They just want to see a really good game of darts. For some people here tonight, they've been looking forward to this all year."

Finally, the action starts. Brown hits the first 180 of the tournament and the 2,500 sell out crowd bursts into life. Grown men dressed as Crayola crayons scream and wave their plastic signs in the air, taunting the group of penguins who are sat in the West Hall stands.

Twenty minutes later, Brown and Part are jokingly embracing in the giant press tent situated behind the very stage they have just done battle on.

"It's what dreams are made of," debutant Brown, a lab technician on the Isle of Wight, tells ESPN. "If someone said to me I would be playing the first match of the world championships against a former champion on opening night, I would have ripped both their arms and legs off!"

Back in the fans' village and a bunch of Michael van Gerwen's backers are busy topping up their glasses. He is the man most have come to see, for he is the defending champion. Dressed in fluorescent green shirts and kilts, these gentlemen have travelled from Edinburgh to experience the "madness" of live darts.

Fans sitting in the tiers often have a sing-off with those sitting at the tables © Getty Images

"On a normal night out you're bound to bump in to someone miserable - you just don't get that here. The atmosphere out there [in the arena] was phenomenal. It doesn't matter how much drink you have, everyone is here to have a good time."

Drinks replenished, Jelle Klaasen sweeps past Christian Kist in the evening's second match. Now it's time for what everyone has been waiting for: Van Gerwen. The West Hall is in full voice for the Dutchman's entrance song, "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes. Walk-on girl Jess Linley didn't expect that much fuss for a man who could be mistaken for Uncle Fester.

"Everyone is so happy," Linley tells ESPN. "I walked out with Michael and the atmosphere was incredible. People just didn't stop singing his name. You could tell he really loved it and that he really enjoyed it. He was in the zone."

Like many in the crowd, this is Linley's first experience of live darts. What has surprised her the most? "I haven't heard the crowd shout anything rude - yet," she says, laughing.

Despite a momentary scare, Van Gerwen wins through to the second round and is in buoyant mood. "Good for morale," says the defending champion when told about the kilted men wearing his trademark green shirt. "It's fantastic to have so much support out there. They're the reason we're here."

One match left to go but, unfortunately, many are leaving to make sure they don't miss the last train home. Empty pint pots litter the Great Hall and, much to the frustration of two over-indulgers, the bar has now closed. Christmas songs are still being played over the PA system, giving the place an eerie feel, something like an abandoned amusement arcade.

Fans head for the exits and begin to make their way back down the Alexandra Palace Hill, towards the train station. At this time of year and, at this time of night, that itself is a strange experience. Baywatch lifeguards are in animated discussion while human-sized bowling pins break out into song.

A lifeguard is asked whether he's enjoyed his night at the darts and tells ESPN: "That was awesome. I'm so glad I've ticked it off my bucket list. I'll definitely be back - I'll see you next year."

His live darts experience is over but, with another two weeks of action to come, the madness and magic at Alexandra Palace has only just begun.

The walk-on girls leave the Alexandra Palace stage © Getty Images
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