The 2017 Challenge Tour (CT) season kicked off this weekend in its Wigan home. The PDC’s ‘second tier division’ has settled into a viable and consistent event over the last few years and is beginning to establish itself as part of a possible path for future professional players. Superb double wins from Aaron Dyer and the performance of Lisa Ashton draw most attention.
This year’s tour may see a significant move, away from the yo-yo process involving some former Pro Tour players, and some of the newer generation begin to break through. Yet at least some of those who have proven to be big fish in the smaller pond may prove difficult to dislodge. For example Alan Tabern (Semi Finalist in CT1 &2) and Mark Frost (Finalist CT1) have again made an impact during the opening weekends four events. Both players have had very strong performances on this tour, over the last two or three years, whilst still struggling to make a significant impact at the higher levels. Aaron Dyer & Martin Lukeman could be players to break through, based on recent efforts, with Lukeman also reaching the later stages of the UK Open as well as a final in CT 2.
A possible weakness of the tour, as a progression path, is the volume of players who have proven solid, and talented, but not able to survive on the main tour and are beginning to clog up the higher end of the second division. In addition players whose careers have dropped, after some very high peaks, are enjoying a bit of an Indian summer. It is reminiscent of footballers who are not quite good enough for the Premier League or those looking for an extended payday by dropping down a division, but whereas in team sports such movement can help young players, or unfancied teams, develope the opposite can be argued here.
At look at the last 16 from event 1 highlights the groups emerging. Aaron Dyer (Winner CT2&4) and the aforementioned Lukeman represent the newer players breaking through. Tabern, Wayne Jones, Kev McDine & Barrie Bates are examples of those who could be said to be trying to recapture former glory. Whilst Jim Walker, Mark Frost and Peter Hudson have proven, at best, inconsistent at the next level. There are many more in each group.
Wolverhampton’s Ian Jones has finally entered a PDC tour and made a solid start. The Whippet is vastly experienced on both BDO and Open tours and has a fierce will to win. Given time to adapt he could prove a dangerous and valuable addition to the cast. At the other end of the age spectrum is Adam Smith Neale. If talent was the only factor Adam would already be a household name. Sadly his early development, as a player, went astray after a superb start. However lots of open success in the last 12 months, and what appears to be a solid return to form, should see progress made toward re-establishing himself as a threat. Pip Blackwell‘s entry into the event implies that the Challenge Tour is now being seen by BDO players as legitimate and perhaps a testing ground for deciding on future career paths.
Lisa Ashton’s strong performance could be a game changer for darts ,and the PDC, as well as the player herself. Already renowned in BDO circles, as a superb player, Ashton’s multiple victories, and close defeats to good quality players, may provide the template for a future unified sport. If this is indeed the turning point, the potential for TV, sponsors and all commercial area’s would be amazing. I cannot think of another mainstream TV sport in which there is a level playing field with Men & Women genuinely competing at the highest level.
In summary then the first four events of this year’s tour demonstrated its strengths and weaknesses. With twenty plus events scheduled for 2017 it should prove the most interesting yet.