The PDC Home Tour is at the forefront of the growing popularity within online darts

The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the sporting calendar and caused some of 2020’s biggest events to be curtailed, but while many fans are bereft of live sporting entertainment, darts has provided a refreshing exception to the rule, courtesy of a thriving concept dubbed ‘Darts At Home’.

Although the majority of UK sport came to a juddering halt in early March, many of darts’ biggest names have been locking horns from the comfort of their respective living rooms via video calls.

The PDC launched the ground-breaking ‘Home Tour’ last month – presenting all 128 Tour Card holders with the opportunity to participate in the organisation’s first ever home-staged event.

However, the PDC are not alone in their innovation. MODUS Darts Management are embarking on their sixth week of live online action which has been headlined by a host of established names, including Phil Taylor, Raymond van Barneveld, Martin Adams and Fallon Sherrock.

Taylor and Van Barneveld renewed their rivalry in the inaugural soft-tip staging of ‘Darts At Home’ in association with Paddy Power and Target Darts and has also featured The Power against the women’s world champion Mikuru Suzuki and will see Taylor look horns this week with Sherrock.

The Remote Darts League has proved popular, featuring several familiar faces from the WDF and BDO systems while Chris Dobey is one of several players to admit to keeping sharp by playing in his local leagues, online of course.

The PDC Home Tour is approaching the latter stages of its initial phase and Sky Sports’ quartet of Wayne Mardle, Colin Lloyd, Rod Studd and Stuart Pyke were unequivocal in their support of the concept on the recent Darts Show podcast.

“I think it’s great, really innovative. There are a lot of people putting a lot of effort into this to try and give darts fans around the UK and around the world some really good entertainment,” said Pyke.

“These are tough times for everyone, so every great bit of entertainment that we can see, I’m all for it. The players have bought into it. That’s what I like.”

The unpredictable nature of the Home Tour was exemplified within the opening week as Peter Wright, Gerwyn Price, Michael Smith and James Wade all failed to win their respective groups, as the lesser names flourished.

Many of the game’s elite relish the prospect of performing on the big stage accompanied by a partisan crowd, although the concept of playing in your own living room replicates the more subdued Pro Tour environment, which has proven a real leveller.

Ten of the 25 group winners to date are ranked outside the world’s top 70 – six of whom are ranked outside the world’s top 100. Yet despite their modest ranking positions, they’ve revelled in the opportunity to pit their wits against the sport’s elite in unfamiliar circumstances.

The Home Tour has also underlined the sports global appeal with nine countries providing winners so far and players from Hong Kong, Australia, Spain and Canada joining the more established surrounds of Great Britain and the Netherlands.

It has also provided an intriguing and often amusing insight into the personality of many less established professionals, as the PDC’s erudite darts commentator Dan Dawson could attest to.

Dawson has frequently gone above and beyond in his duties as host, providing meticulous instructions to bewildered World Championship quarter-finalist Darius Labanauskas on Sunday, who toiled in his attempts to access the Darts Connect system.

We’ve seen Kai Fan Leung defeat Dobey in the early hours of the morning in front of just his dog in Hong Kong, while close friends Glen Durrant and Justin Pipe were involved in a contest littered with playful verbal jousting when they did battle in Group 19.

“Nobody is saying you’d rather watch that than Premier League Darts – Van Gerwen vs Gary Anderson – but where we are at the moment, I think it’s quite good really. I’ve enjoyed watching some of the games,” added Rod Studd.

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“I watched a MODUS game between [Jason} Askew and [Arron} Monk and they averaged 104 and 109. I’d definitely say it’s benefitted Arron Monk. I’ve watched quite a lot of him and he’s throwing like a dream. I think all this match practice at that level is going to help a lot of players.”

As aforementioned, all 128 PDC Tour Card holders were handed the opportunity to compete in the Home Tour but there have been some notable absentees; including world No 1 Michael van Gerwen, who declined the invitation following the recent birth of his second child.

Two-time major winner Daryl Gurney also declared he would be unable to compete and two-time world champion Gary Anderson is hoping to rectify the WiFi issues that hindered his prospects of participating earlier in the event.

However, one of the tournament’s most refreshing aspects has been the exposure given to emerging talents. PDC Chief Executive Matt Porter maintained that it was about opportunity and all Tour Card holders were to be given the chance to showcase their credentials and that promise has been fulfilled.

The inclusive nature of the event has also provided financial support for players – particularly those lower down the darting echelons. Although no prize money is on offer, each player will receive an appearance fee for their efforts.

This is on top of the support offered by The Professional Darts Players Association, who in March introduced a support scheme entitling players to an immediate emergency fund of £1,000 – for those struggling with the financial repercussions of the elongated lay-off.

The enforced hiatus has given players ample opportunity to hone their skills in practice, but it’s also given them the platform to maintain match-sharpness, which Mardle and Lloyd insist is invaluable.

“You want to keep your arm ticking over and like I’ve said on numerous occasions, it’s okay having a practice but it’s not the same as playing competitive darts.

“Some of the throws people have been playing on for decades, so there’s familiarity there and that can ease the angst.”

Mardle on the Home Tour standard

“That would mean come the end of lockdown, when you do start your pro events again and you are earning your ranking points, you would be ready and you would be match-sharp,” said two-time major winner Lloyd.

Sky Sports expert Mardle concurs with the former world No 1 and admits that the lack of competitive action since March may cause the most experienced names to wilt in pressurised situations.

“What players need to do now is get ready for the comeback. Get ready for the competition. It’s not just the playing, it’s the competitive side of it as well,” Mardle told the Darts Show podcast.

“When you haven’t been under pressure, which they haven’t now for the best part of seven weeks, when you are under pressure next, it can really crack in the system – you can panic.”

Amid the panic that Mardle references, the Home Tour has featured some sensational displays. Luke Woodhouse produced the performance of the event thus far – averaging 114 in a 5-0 rout of Price, as he landed a nine-darter from his own kitchen.

Mardle cites familiarity as the catalyst for many of the top performers, and he believes that even when the sporting world returns to some semblance of normality, lockdown darts could become an enduring concept.

“Some of the standard has been amazing at home. We’re all front-room world champions, but some of the throws people have been playing on for decades, so there’s familiarity there and that can ease the angst,” added ‘Hawaii 501’.

“I think it’s great and I don’t think it stops once lockdown ends and I don’t want to see it end. We love the game, so well done to MODUS and the PDC.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think there needs to be a few tweaks here and there. I think it could be done slightly better but its darts, so let’s just embrace it for what it is, which is competitive sport.”

‘Darts at Home’ has also proven popular with other sporting stars. On Sunday, England internationals James Maddison and Declan Rice competed alongside West Brom striker Charlie Austin and Preston North End midfielder Paul Gallagher in a footballers special.

Gallagher ran out a comprehensive winner and averaged an impressive 75 in his victory over former Southampton talisman Austin, in an event designed to raise vital funds for NHS Charities Together.

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