The UK is by far and away the biggest darts market in the world. The annual PDC World Darts Championship is now a highlight of the British sporting calendar and as much a part of the festive season as Boxing Day soccer. All but a handful of the men’s world champions have hailed from England, Scotland or Wales.
Darts is firmly established in the sporting landscape but it has never broken through into the mainstream like it did during the 2024 World Championship thanks to 16-year-old debutant Luke Littler’s run to the final.
In Littler, darts might finally have its first true crossover star. The sport was suddenly a topic of water cooler conversation, it was the top story on not just the back page of national newspapers but the front page too, and was even the subject of radio phone-ins.
Littler himself was being asked for selfies by England international soccer players staying in the same hotel and his matches drew a series of record viewership figures, culminating in a 4.8 million-strong UK audience for his final defeat against the world number one Luke Humphries.
Predictably, there are individuals looking to make capital from this newfound popularity, particularly those without any previously well-documented fondness for the sport. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak invited Humphries to Downing Street, an honour not usually bestowed upon new world champions, while there were calls from opposition parties to make the final available on free-to-air (FTA) television.
There have been similar calls in the UK for other paywalled events in the past, most notably the men’s 2019 Cricket World Cup final between England and New Zealand and the 2021 US Open tennis final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez (indeed, Littler’s rise has been compared to Raducanu’s).
This newsletter is a huge supporter of FTA sport, but it’s almost important to recognise that Sky’s viewing figures are a reward for three decades of investment in professional darts – a commitment that has helped transform the World Darts Championship into a major event.
The quality of its coverage has been crucial in engaging viewers and establishing legitimacy, while its financial contribution to the PDC has boosted prize money to the point that more players can earn a living from the sport, driving up standards.
BIG FISH IN THE FINAL! 🚨🤯
TAKE A BOW, LUKE LITTLER! pic.twitter.com/yzxQO3Ef4E
— Sky Sports Darts (@SkySportsDarts) January 3, 2024
Ultimately, it is up to Sky as the rights owner to do what it wants. The Cricket World Cup final was an opportunity for a PR win given cricket’s retreat behind a paywall and grow the audience, while Channel 4’s presentation of the US Open was effectively a three-hour advert for Amazon Prime. By keeping the World Darts Championship final on Sky Sports and its Now direct-to-consumer (DTC) service, it was rewarded with its largest ever non-soccer audience.
While the PDC might have loved to have been on FTA television, it understands the importance of Sky Sports as a broadcast partner in its astonishing growth over the past 30 years (and especially the last decade). Sky might only contribute 25 per cent of the PDC’s income, but its coverage has established the organisation’s darts events as a spectacle – driving sponsorship and ticket sales.
In Germany, Sport1 has also been rewarded for its long-term commitment. Darts was once a minority sport in Germany, but the country is now one of the fastest growing darting nations, producing several top players, including last year’s semi-finalist Gabriel Clemens. Sport1 can take huge credit for this given its wide availability on pay-TV platforms and was able to generate an audience of 2.8 million for this year’s final.
Broadcasters and rights holders are often encouraged to adopt a long-term view when it comes to media rights and there is arguably no better example of this than professional darts. How is a disruptor or emerging property going to convince a partner to devote significant resources and airtime to a sport that might not attract huge audiences in the early years if they are forced to share or give up coverage when the sport becomes more popular?
That’s not to say there shouldn’t be provisions for FTA coverage for major events – far from it. But it’s not unfair to say that the World Darts Championship is not yet one of the ‘crown jewels’ of British sport. It may one day achieve that status and be protected as a listed event – but at least Sky would know that when it signed its contract. Until then, it should be allowed to reap the rewards of its investment.
If politicians really cared about darts and FTA sport, then their efforts would be better spent campaigning for the expansion of the UK government’s listed events rather than expressing empty rhetoric or posing for opportunistic photoshoots.
Sky takes tennis fans on an unwanted trip back in time
Darts isn’t the only area where Sky Sports excels. Its coverage of cricket, golf, and Formula One is widely acclaimed, helping to reinforce the idea of its service as a premium product worth paying the subscription fee. The broadcaster has also been a technological pioneer, whether it’s through interactive television, Ultra High-Definition, or enhanced on-screen graphics.
So it’s a huge surprise that its much-trumpeted return to tennis has been so half baked. Having regained the rights to the US Grand Slam tournament from Amazon last year, Sky finally confirmed last November that it had also acquired coverage of the ATP and WTA tours for five years.
The announcement promised live coverage of more than 80 tournaments and 4,000 matches each season. Its presentation team was to be led by Gigi Salmon, commentary would be provided by Jonathan Overend, and Laura Robson and Tim Henman had signed up as pundits.
Sky will broadcast the ATP and WTA tours in the UK, Germany and Italy for the next five years (Image credit: Getty Images)
The minimum expectation was that Sky would replicate Amazon’s practice of showing every single match from each tournament with hopes that a dedicated channel would appear. However, the first week of the new arrangement has seen Sky provide just a single feed of content, serving up matches from multiple tournaments, and no studio programming to speak of – never mind a Sky Sports Tennis channel.
Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well with tennis fans accustomed to choosing which match they want – and for a much lower subscription fee. Simply put, there is no legal way for British viewers to see the overwhelming majority of top-tier tennis.
While there are undoubtedly significant technical requirements for multi-court coverage, Sky’s interest in tennis has been an open secret within the industry for several months and the broadcaster offered multiple feeds for the US Open last September.
It’s a curious situation and the paucity of Sky’ current offering is highlighted even further by Eurosport and Discovery+’s plans for 260 hours of live coverage from 17 courts at next week’s Australian Open, along with a full suite of shoulder programming.
SportsPro understands a more comprehensive plan will be revealed before the end of the month, but there is only one chance to make a first impression. Any goodwill could have long been squandered and, in the worst case scenario, fans already dismayed by the higher cost of Sky’s offering could have found more unofficial means to watch their favourite sport.
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Steve McCaskill www.sportspromedia.com Insights,Opinion,Opinion – Blog,ATP Tour,PDC,Sky Sports,US Open,WTA Tour
2024-01-11 16:39:58 , SportsPro