A brief glance at the results of events from this years Players Championship events reveals a fundamental change in the professional game. Although the games current elite players are still winning events, or at least getting into the later stages, others are finally stepping up and beginning a quiet revolution.
In the first six months of 2017 MVG and Gary Anderson have only claimed a handful of PC events between them and there have been 13 different winners from 16 events. Although the PC tour has grown and altered, in format and volume of events, this appears to be a unique season. In addition two players with little or no top flight experience, in either code, have reached the final. This is a huge achievement and not enough credit has been given (See Article on Robert Cross in the blog), yet it is not simply the new blood that threatens a dramatic change.
For the past few years the Players Championship (PC) has been slowly changing. There are many factors contributing to this but they now seem to be combining to provide an exciting opportunity. The tour card system and restriction of PC events to 128 players every time. This provides a very strong structure to every event. Each event is now very similar in length and made up of substantially identical fields for at least 12 months often longer.
The whole PC tour is played in a very small number of venues and with a consistent team of markers, officials and support staff. There are no random events held all over the world with different field size, organisation, set ups, logistics, facilities etc. This enables players to become accustomed to every aspect and more relaxed.
The increased prize money, especially in the early rounds, and reduced playing costs of the Pro Tour in general, even more so for the PC’s, mean that players are under less pressure to win multiple games in order to be able to continue, or encourage others to pay for, their efforts. An extreme example, from 2010, involves flying halfway across the globe to Australia and staying for only 3 nights (Cost approx £2000) and having to reach the last 32 (only 1 chance due to it being a single event) in order to win £200. In 2017 the worst possible scenario would be travelling to Dublin staying two or three nights (Cost approx £300) and having two chances to gain a place in the last 32. Should you be successful the prize money will be £1000. Previously fields could be over 258 in which case a minimum of three wins in a row was needed to reach the last 32. Now it is a maximum of two.
During the decade, or so, of its existence there have been in the region of 60 players who have won a PDC event of this standing. This would be less for specific PC events since the Pro Tour could be said to be fully established. Yet a look at the field from the most recent one tells its own story. The 128 included 36 players who have won a PC event. 9 more were finalists and at least another 10 have won events equivalent events or recorded elite achievements. In short one in three players in the draw had won or were demonstrably capable of winning the event! Thus it should come as no surprise that 4 players who had not previously won a PC event have added one this season already.
The demands of the modern PDC Pro Tour is starting to play a role in the PC changes, over ten of the events are now two/three-day events on mainland Europe and this will affect elite players in many ways. Selection of events, injury/illness ( MVG recently) and fatigue are all likely to play a role. In addition to this a wider variety of players can gain valuable experience and money by qualifying for these events and boosting their confidence as well as coffers.
The declining dominance ,and now absence, of Phil Taylor will doubtless continue to play a role. “The Power’s” dominance of the Pro Tour was immense. Often it was he who ensured that in any group of 5 events there were no more than 2 or 3 winners. The effect on other players, who shared his side of the draw or played him in repeated finals, can not be under stated. However some of this is off set by the dominance of MVG, but this is limited by the fact he, unlike Taylor previously, cannot play every event.
Players arriving on the PC tour have had to earn their place on it, via Q School, and know that they cannot get away with hoping for a softer draw. In addition they are more familiar with the nature of the events and can prepare and practise for them. The slight variations in field that take place, due to top players having to miss events, play to the strengths of those who are highly talented and either not battle-scarred or in, what could be called, the second rank. Players such as Rob Cross,Joe Cullen and Kyle Anderson demonstrate this admirably. In addition players, such as Steve Beaton and Darren Webster, with immense skill, experience and patience can also triumph.
A glance at the Players Championship order of Merit reveals the revolution that is underway. MVG is only 7th. Cross, Gurney and Cullen are in the top five despite none of them being in the top 16 overall. The effect of the PC revolution is yet to play out in full, but some of its consequences are becoming clear. The gain in confidence and cash that players can accumulate is already knocking on into major TV events. Daryl Gurney, Darren Webster and Rob Cross had significant roles in the World Matchplay and this rise of the outsider looks likely to continue. The qualifying lists for the remaining majors and the seedings for events such as the Players Championship Finals will be unrecognisable from previous years. Highly ranked players in this years world championship may face players who have won events on the tour, and played in multiple TV majors, in the first round. In many ways this will be good for the game. More new players for the TV audience to get to know and hopefully less predictable TV events.
A major upside will be the number of players who can earn a good living being a darts professional. Not so long ago it was really only the top 10 – 16 that could be sure of a decent annual income. Currently the 32nd ranked player has earned over £110,000 over the last two years, in prize money alone. With increased outside income from sponsors and exhibitions this should easily translate to around £60,000 p.a after expenses. Only two players from the BDO earned in excess of this amount over the last two years. The downside of the upheaval could be the TV folks being less happy. Major stars may not qualify or bow out early on. The next years or two may feature some tinkering with how these rankings are structured. Overall the revolution in earning potential, opportunity exposure and security is a tremendous boost to players and a remarkable achievement from those who operate the PDC.