Darts - where a Polish bus driver can become a superstar. Is there anything else like it in modern sport? Nowadays… maybe not.
There are brilliant stories from even the most hyper-professional, money-laden sports like football - Jamie Vardy went from non-league to title-winner in a few short years, but even he was not playing at Old Trafford while still working as a technician making medical splints (I had to Google this and I’m still not much wiser as to his previous job).
Yet this week in Barnsley, Radek Szaganski became just the second Polish player to win a PDC ranking title. The 44 year old who moved from his home country to Ireland, where he still drives a bus for a living, beat major champions Dimitri Van den Bergh and Jonny Clayton en route to winning Players Championship 27. He was ranked 84th in the world at the start of the day. His title victory not only earned him £12,000, but likely double that (at least) with the knock-on effects of him qualifying for other big events on television. Radek described it as “life changing”.
Dimitri himself, a former winner of the World Matchplay, seemed groomed for greatness via the various youth systems now available to players, yet he too was training to be a lift engineer before focussing on the sport full-time. Ross Smith is the reigning European Champion and won the title the day after Szaganski’s victory; but when he reached his first major quarter-final at the UK Open, he basically had to pull a sickie from work in order to compete (a contributing factor to why he no longer drives trucks for a living). Rob Cross provided one of the great rags to riches stories by going from electrician to World Champion in just 18 months.
This is the beauty of this sport: it is ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The vast majority of players have backgrounds like this, and it makes them relatable. It is one of the sport’s greatest strengths - people watching on TV at home see sportspeople that are like them, and yet blessed with a talent that can elevate them to these heights. It is a million miles away from the world of professional football, where players can be hugely wealthy before they first set foot on the pitch for a professional game, comprehensively media-trained, and have never had to engage with a life like that of their fans.
However, darts is in a time of change. Next year will see Pro Tour events moved to midweek in an ever-busier schedule. The room for players to hold down regular jobs as they seek to establish themselves in the sport is becoming smaller. Some have spoken out about it already, saying they do not believe they can balance darts with their “real world” commitments. Four-time major champion Jonny Clayton (career prize money c.£2.25m) said he could not be certain whether he would have been able to start his professional career, had the schedule been like this when he began.
The PDC are firmly set on this goal of making the game more professional though. They point to the abolition of entry fees, the increased number of tournaments, and improved prize money. The current world number 64 has amassed almost £65,000 on his ranking over the last two years, without sponsors, non-ranked events etc. The organisation’s efforts have created a sport where the strength in depth has never been greater, and we are seeing new major champions on a regular basis. Some players towards the bottom end of the rankings will not be able to make the life of a darts player work financially, but such is the cut-throat nature of top-level professional sport according to Barry Hearn.
The money has never been so good, the opportunities never so plentiful, and the talent pool never so deep - but it is important that, as the game continues to become more professional, the avenues remain for a Polish bus driver to become a star - because, in my opinion, it has always been one of the most attractive aspects of this magnificent sport.
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Issue #001 Quiz Answers
1) Phil Taylor
3) 2019 and 2020
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