Like most darts fans, I ended up missing most of the weekend’s Paddy Power Champions League despite my eyes never leaving the screen.
PDC Darts had its annual airing on terrestrial TV as the top eight players in the world assembled in Leicester for the fourth staging of what is effectively a lucrative exhibition event.
Make no mistake, this tournament was created purely for the BBC. They wanted a slice of top level darts after ditching their coverage of the BDO World Championship in January 2016.
Given its ever-shrinking portfolio of live sport, getting a foot in the door of the biggest broadcaster in the world was a major coup for the PDC and a welcome relief for those unable to justify Sky’s mounting subscription costs.
With a new-look line-up from that which anchored the Lakeside coverage, the BBC’s first delve into PDC darts three years ago was met with a degree of trepidation from the sport’s hardcore audience.
However, despite the odd irregularity, including a reporter actively encouraging fans to boo players on stage, viewers were pleasantly surprised at the production quality, matched by the astronomical standard of darts we have become accustomed to on a weekly basis.
BBC bosses liked what they saw, and after strong viewing figures, the deal was renewed for a further three years.
2017 and 2018 produced two new champions, as well as a change of venue and a rotation of various broadcasters and pundits, and it appeared as though the tournament, despite holding little prestige, had now become a welcome part of the darting calendar.
Rescheduled a month later than the previous year, the Champions League headed to Leicester this time around, sponsored for the second successive year by bookie ‘banter’ merchants Paddy Power – who put up an actual wrestling belt for the winner.
Before a dart had even been thrown, presenter Caroline Barker dropped a clanger, declaring “180, 180, 180” as the preferred method of hitting a nine-darter. It could only get better, you would have thought.
Thankfully, former major champions Mark Webster, Paul Nicholson and Alan Warriner-Little, accompanied by esteemed darts broadcaster Dan Dawson, were on-hand to steady the ship with their expert analysis and commentary, but that was about as good as it got in terms of production value.
From the outset it was clear something wasn’t quite right. The opening match of the tournament between Daryl Gurney and Peter Wright was not one people will be rushing out to buy a DVD of, which is just as well, because most of the attempts at doubles were missed not only by the players, but the cameras too.
As a player prepared to throw for a finish, an unnecessary close-up of their face would occupy the screen, and by the time the director had a chance to cut to the intended target, the dart had already reached the board.
When you have some of the sport’s fastest throwers going toe-to-toe, like Gary Anderson and Michael Smith for instance, this is a recipe for disaster. And so it proved.
You would have thought the director, who is ultimately in charge of each shot, would have acknowledged the car crash that was unfolding in front of their eyes and taken the necessary action to rectify it, but that wasn’t the case, and the insufferable trend of missed shots and late cutaways, reminiscent of the 1980s, continued throughout the weekend.
Anyone could have been forgiven for occasionally allowing this to happen on a tour event stream or an obscure cable channel, but this was being played out in front of the nation in the sport’s one and only screening on terrestrial TV and did the remarkable product the PDC have built up somewhat of an injustice.
So what went wrong?
The production rights were led up by Slam Media in partnership with IMG – who had also held the rights to the BDO World Championship in recent years.
Contrary to popular belief, the sloppy camera work cannot solely be attributed to the camera operators, it is the director who has the final say on shots even after the spotter, in this case a current PDC referee, has called the checkout route.
Any indecision or slow reactions can cause a delay to the cameraman, which consequently means they are struggling to keep up with the pace of play.
Darts is centred around small targets and is one of the fastest-moving of any individual sports out there, with three darts released in as quickly as four seconds and legs completed in a matter of minutes.
Sky Sports initially came under fire when they took the decision to use remotely-operated cameras stageside, but vastly experienced spotters including Keith Deller and the late Eric Bristow ensured production continued to run as smoothly as possible.
Darts is a complex sport to produce and this weekend perhaps made us take for granted the slick and professional coverage served up by Sky and ITV that has contributed heavily to the sport’s success story.
The production company in this case was caught short and failed to resolve the situation, leading to an unprecedented number of complaints on social media (if in doubt, scroll through the BBC Darts hashtag).
As IMG is a host broadcaster of the ongoing Rugby World Cup, it is quite possible that their most experienced production staff are currently in Japan, but that does not excuse the haphazard production we witnessed in Leicester.
Having a presence on terrestrial TV is important for showcasing the sport to a mainstream audience, but no matter how high the standard of play, the product is let down significantly if the production quality is compromised.
The players who did their bit by serving up a series of high quality contests across the weekend deserve better. The pundits, spectators and the viewing audience at home deserve better.
The Champions League of Darts is pencilled in from September 5-6 next year, though it remains unclear as to whether the BBC have renewed the current deal.
Should they opt to, lessons must be learned and every possible step taken to ensure a repeat outcome is avoided, otherwise they may as well draft in John Virgo to the commentary box…
“Where’s the dart going?!”