Michael Houston

The sea of long tables scattered with pint glasses, someone's dad dressed up like Geri Halliwell in her Spice Girls days, a bunch of boys looking like they have taken a wrong turn at Aintree, all dressed up as jockeys for a stag do.

Ladies and gentlemen, the darts.

It's a formulaic sport in many respects, with very little changing since I first started watching in 2003.

At the time, it felt like every night the darts would be on and I'd be sitting there counting down the scores trying to keep up with the raspy Essex voice of announcer Russ Bray, shouting "ONE AN-DRED" every time the common score of 100 would come up.

This was imprinted into my brain thanks to years of being the son of a bookmaker, watching Sky Sports for hours on end and becoming acquainted with the likes of Phil "The Power" Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld, otherwise known as "Barney".

And much to the chagrin - it must have got annoying at some point - of some of my colleagues, my impressions of Russ Bray returned over the past couple of weeks during the 2022 World Darts Championship, scheduled to end on Monday (January 3).

Much like the band My Chemical Romance or television show The Simpsons, it takes a spell away from thinking it is no longer cool before you truly appreciate the displays at the oche.

This Championship revisits the incredible range that the sport has and its larger global appeal.

Phil Taylor is widely regarded as the greatest ever darts player ©Getty Images
Phil Taylor is widely regarded as the greatest ever darts player ©Getty Images

In years gone by, Van Barneveld being Dutch was about as exotic as it got - the equivalent of a week in the British settlement of Benidorm, in Spain. However, we have been treated with a true World Championship in London this year.

COVID-19 dropped the number of nationalities in the field from 31 to 29 - but that is still the same number as the 2021 edition.

There were only five nationalities featured in the 2003 field of 16, with only two players hailing from outside the UK. 

This shot up to 14 nationalities in 2006 when the tournament expanded to 64 players and it only seems to be getting bigger now with 96 starting the draw.

I feel like writing an ode to the sport, but instead I will explain its cultural significance here in the UK. 

Much like snooker, darts has gained popularity through bars and pubs, with it being a staple of the British culture. We even had a darts gameshow here. Hence the majority of players coming from these isles. 

More so, it is incredibly affordable. I can tell you as a runner - and athletics is a universal sport - that I need to replace my running trainers every four to six months at a fairly hefty cost, while a dartboard and darts can last you years. 

The only reason why most kids did not have one in their house was due to their parents being sick of the walls having holes all over them - or at least that was my mum's reasoning when we brought it over for a week from my dad's house.

This mixture of drinking and throwing sharp objects poorly at a wall has surprisingly caught on over the years and has become in its own phenomenon, with players creating personas similar to World Wrestling Entertainment or boxing.

The juxtaposition of a grand entrance with a man (it still usually is a man) walking out to hundreds chanting their name, slightly out of shape and wearing a gaudy, ill-fitting shirt plays on the irony of the sport.

That said, players seem to be getting fitter and are less obsessed with necking pints these days. The likes of Eric Bristow and Andy Fordham are becoming more and more of an anomaly, for the better. Less tales of alcoholism and more sensible drinking has helped darts' reputation tremendously.

Instead, we have the man I refer to simply as a "unit" - less said about his Twitter antics the better - Wales' Gerwyn Price, a former rugby player.

Price, the defending champion, likely works out more than me. You also have the formerly portly Van Barneveld looking his trimmest. It still is a sport full of pot bellies, but there is a conscious effort to improve well-being, particularly with a prize fund of £2.5 million ($3.37 million/€2.97 million) on the line.

Gerwyn Price switched from rugby to become a professional darts player ©Getty Images
Gerwyn Price switched from rugby to become a professional darts player ©Getty Images

There is some controversy over the quota system that has been put in place in recent years, giving spots in the Championship to different nations, which is a good thing - but does make the first rounds arduous at times.

However, development and a move away from just the UK is needed - and the emergence of women like Fallon Sherrock and Lisa Ashton are showing how inclusive the sport can be.

Even with the changes that come with the commercialisation of the sport, a lot of the traditions remain. You can see it in Scotland's Peter Wright's nickname "Snakebite" - a nod to the drink that is half lager and half cider. You have the cheeky innuendos from the likes of the new Scottish prodigy William Borland, known as "Big Willie".

You still have the long-bearded Kiwi Simon Whitlock poking fun at himself with the nickname "The Wizard" and The Netherlands' Dirk van Duijvenbode entertaining the crowds with his entertaining walk-on, backed up by a hardstyle song. 

Even with all the pageantry associated with the shirts, the entrance music, the nicknames, the multicoloured mohawks, there is nothing better than a zoom-in camera on the treble 20 after two darts, anticipating a maximum score.

There are few things in sports quite like a call of "180" or everyone chanting along to Chase the Sun by Planet Funk, now simply known as "the song from the darts". Even the partisan English crowd jeering rival nations' players is like a traditional Saturday football match.

And the winner of the 2022 Championship will be treated like royalty, like any other top sports star, and likely with a pot belly.