The World Darts Championship set a new milestone for women in sports

The World Darts Championship set a new milestone for women in sports

Published Dec. 18, 2019 2:56 p.m. ET

There is a giant, raucous, wildly-entertaining party going on in London right now that also serves as an annual sporting event. On Tuesday night, a 25-year-old woman named Fallon Sherrock walked into the middle of it, carved out a slice of history and turned herself into superstar.

The party is also known as the PDC World Darts Championship, a yearly ritual in the British capital that has become a dearly loved staple of the festive viewing period. Throngs of supporters pack into the iconic Alexandra Palace over 16 days wearing costumes of varying imagination levels to watch, sing and (let’s be honest now) guzzle generous amounts of beer.

Late on Tuesday, the revelers roared as loud as ever as Sherrock became the first woman to win a match at the championship, defeating Ted Evetts in a nail-biting first-round encounter.

Women darts players have their own separate world title, organized by the British Darts Organization, but for the past two years the Professional Darts Corporation have reserved two female spots in its signature event, the richest and most prestigious darts tournament on the planet.

Lisa Ashton and Anastasia Dobromyslova put up a good fight a year ago, and Japan’s Mikuru Suzuki came within one leg of defeating James Richardson on Monday. However, it is Sherrock who got over the line and thus, within a few hours, caught a promotional whirlwind that saw her interviewed by countless radio, print and television outlets and enjoyably trounce Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain.

“I’ve always had the game, but us women have never had the opportunity to prove it,” Sherrock told GMB. “Last night I proved to myself and everyone else that us women can play against the men and beat them.”

By beating Evetts, Sherrock remains in the hunt for the $653,000 first prize, which illustrates as much as anything how much darts has grown and how entrenched it is as a part of the European sporting psyche.

Many Americans are stunned to learn that darts has a widespread following overseas, but it’s captivating stuff when done right — and the PDC long ago found that if you turn your event into a fun-filled party and stage it around Christmas time, you’ll get a lot of people wanting to turn up.

The royal family are known to be fans and Prince Harry has previously attended, while the people watching inside the venue itself is worth the price of admission. Popular fan outfits from previous years have featured Teletubbies, Mario and Luigis, a group of beekeepers (?), Minions, astronauts and presidents Trump, Obama and Bush Jr.

However, darts’ appeal now stretches far beyond the winter. A year-round tour takes players across Europe and further afield, with a World Series of Darts event to be staged at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in early June.

World No. 1 Michael Van Gerwen tops the order of merit money list with a tally of nearly $2 million over the past two seasons. All major events are broadcast on television, while the current worlds are streamed in the United States by DAZN and the PDC’s own subscription service.

The World Darts Championship is a big enough deal in the United Kingdom that past television ratings have been second only to English Premier League soccer. All the national newspapers staff the event, which is how I became involved many years ago, in a former life, being dispatched to provide coverage as a junior reporter for The Daily Mirror in the early 2000s.

It was still great fun back then, but it was all very different. The old world championship venue, the Circus Tavern, was a repurposed strip club squeezed next to a motorway. The players almost all had regular jobs, as the spoils from darts were insufficient to support a full-time career. Most players grew up playing in the pub, with bellies to match.

Things have changed. Whereas the two most significant players in history, multiple world champions Phil Taylor and Raymond Van Barneveld, were respectively a former factory worker and a Dutch mailman, the new breed seek their living from flinging tungsten arrows at a board made of cork and sisal fibers.

There are still some on the, ahem, well-proportioned side, but most are in good physical shape to meet the increasing demands of competition, travel and practice. No longer is it routine for a player to duck backstage for a swig of beer when the action cuts to commercial break.

The next great growth area could be the women’s side. Sherrock’s accomplishment will surely spark a boom in competitive numbers and held spread the understanding that the best women players, if exposed to elite competition, can rub shoulders with the men.

“Darts is one of the few sports where women and men can compete alongside each other and Fallon really proved that with a moment in history,” PDC chief executive Matthew Porter told me via email this morning.

“It will hopefully be a breakthrough for women's darts, inspiring more women to try the sport themselves or come along to an event. Our social media numbers have hit new records and Fallon has had interview requests from around the world — she may find her 2020 looking a lot different to how it may have done 24 hours ago.”

Sherrock’s triumph wasn’t a fluke. Evetts, 22, is one of the most promising young male players on the circuit and played strongly while moving into a 2-1 lead in sets. But Sherrock held firm, and when the call of impending history beckoned, her aim was true, pinpointing the double 18 required for victory.

“Definitely there was a lot of pressure, but when I was playing I forgot all about it, all the making history, and I just played my game,” Sherrock added.

Darts is gaining a following in the U.S. (particularly among those who were quick to adopt a fandom for international soccer), but it’s Europe where the heartland lies. American Darin Young beat the legend Van Barneveld early in this year’s event and narrowly fell to rising star Jeffrey De Zwaan on Tuesday. A group of hopeful Americans will venture to the PDC’s qualification “Q-School” in January to try to land a tour card.

The barrier to entry for darts is incredibly low: buy an affordable set of darts and you can play to your heart’s content. Most parts of the country have competitive leagues.

As for dreams of greatness, however, the standard has become remarkably high. A decent local league player might hit a perfect 60 on one out of every nine throws. To be a serious contender at world level you need to be consistently hitting two out of every three. In her match, Sherrock hit six 180s (all three darts perfectly aimed at the treble 20).

For those with ambitious minds but limited physical gifts, it’s true that you’ve probably got more chance of playing in the World Darts Championship than, say, the National Football League. In reality, unless you’ve got the next decade free to spend practicing, it’s not much of a chance.

Your energy and money is probably better spent looking for flights to London to sample the ultimate party in sports. Just don’t forget to pack your costume.