Last week, it was announced that three players had effectively been handed ‘wildcards’ into the 2018 World Championship; understandably, this has been met with discontent from players and fans alike.
The decision, however, should not come as a surprise. Throughout the year, the goalposts have been moved to allow for the ‘development’ of a select band of players under the guise of ‘growing the sport’ in emerging darting territories.
The landscape of the sport is changing rapidly at both elite and grass roots level, with this year witnessing a clear changing of the guard as a number of seasoned professionals make way for a new breed of challengers.
The World Championship is growing in terms of importance year-on-year. Its’ prize fund, which now stands at a record £1.8 million, far outweighs that of any other ranking major and thus has a huge impact on the Order of Merit and qualification tables for the rest of the season.
The 72-man field for Alexandra Palace is comprised of: the top 32 players in the PDC Main Order of Merit, the top 16 players in the Pro Tour Order of Merit, 22 international qualifiers and two PDPA qualifiers.
The criteria of the international qualifiers has come under scrutiny after Krzysztof Ratajski, Devon Petersen and Jeff Smith were awarded places in the event under that bracket despite not winning through a sanctioned qualifying event.
The decision has fuelled outrage on social media and it’s not hard to see why. Paul Nicholson revealed he has written to the PDPA to seek clarification on the decision and other Tour Card holders have also expressed their dissatisfaction.
Ratajski will make his Alexandra Palace debut in December (Photo by PDC Europe)
Poland’s Ratajski was beaten in the Semi-Finals of the Eastern Europe Qualifier but was later granted a place in the World Championship as the highest placed Eastern European on the PDC Order of Merit.
Ratajski, who won this year’s BDO World Masters and does not hold a PDC Tour Card, took what seemed like a risk by opting out of returning to Lakeside in January in pursuit of a debut at Ally Pally – a quest in which it appeared as though he had failed by not securing qualification either automatically or through his regional qualifier.
But did he know something we didn’t? The awarding of a World Championship place to the ‘highest placed Eastern European on the PDC Order of Merit’ was not outlined in the initial qualifying criteria at the beginning of the year, and after Ratajski had risen to prominence in recent months, Eastern Europe has suddenly been identified as a key growth area by PDC Chairman Barry Hearn.
Hopp, skip and jump the queue
Jeff Smith tried and failed to qualify for Lakeside but now finds himself in the PDC World Championship by default. Would he have entered that Lakeside qualifier if he knew a place was available at Ally Pally for the National Darts Federation of Canada’s number one?
This begs the question: why was the full qualifying criteria not outlined at the beginning of the year?
It appears to be part of a wider issue which stems from the World Series of Darts – a series of glorified exhibitions which seem to be taking more precedence each year.
Take Max Hopp for example. World ranked 44, he has been handed wildcards for two World Series events in 2017 despite failing to reach a ranking Quarter-Final for almost 18 months.
His performances in both – First Round exits – did little to justify his inclusion over a whole host of players who have either won tournaments or gone deep in majors this year.
We all know that Germany is crying out for a darting superstar and it is clear both the PDC and PDC Europe are desperate for Hopp to fulfil that role. What’s actually happening, though, is that the 21-year-old is being weighed down by that expectation and clearly isn’t ready to cut it with the elite just yet.
Hearn: “It is important that we take into account developments in different territories to ensure that our World Championship is completely representative” (Photo by Lawrence Lustig/PDC)
On the flip side, look at Mensur Suljovic for example. He has come through the darting wilderness to become a televised title winner and an established top eight player.
But does his face fit? Apparently not. The most successful German-speaking player in PDC history, Suljovic had never featured in a World Series event prior to the recent German Masters and was originally omitted from that line-up before receiving a late invite – imaginably due to the fact the organisers realised how nonsensical it would be to exclude him based on his recent achievements.
Money over morals?
Hearn often proclaims that darts offers a level playing field based on equal opportunity, but how can that possibly be the case when there are now so many invitational events on the calendar and places in the sport’s most prestigious competition being handed out like raffle prizes?
It largely comes down to the fact that, unlike the BDO, the PDC is a business, not an organisation. The board makes decisions based on commercial value and what will benefit the business in the long run.
If including the top emerging player from Eastern Europe in the World Championship attracts sponsorship and broadcast partners in that region, then that in their view is justifiable.
Looking at the bigger picture, Tour Cards will be on the line during the World Championship for some players both involved in the tournament and sat at home and these could be affected directly by players who have been fast-tracked into the event.
In future, there has to be more clarity in qualification criteria and performance-based rewards as opposed to being favoured simply because your face fits.