Britain’s cheekiest pop sensation Lewis Capaldi is walking to the stage, stopping for a quick snog with One Direction’s Niall Horan while being egged on by a bunch of traffic cones. This isn’t a Brits afterparty. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the most hotly anticipated sporting events in the UK calendar.
Welcome to the bonkers world of darts at the Ally Pally.
Nothing says Christmas like festive tipples, elaborate outfits… and arrows. Over the course of 16 days during the festive period, 50,000 spectators will dress up and travel to in North London to watch the world’s finest fling their darts and battle it out for the Sid Waddell trophy.
Darts at the Alexandra Palace has become a Christmas tradition over the last 30 years
Over the course of 16 days during the festive period, 50,000 fans dress up and travel over
Three men dress up as cans of Heinz Beanz as they state their claim for wackiest fancy dress
The World Darts Championship attracts interest from all walks of life – from celebrity names to sports enthusiasts, the suited and booted to the Christmas revellers. So, what do these wildly contradicting facets of society descending on Ally Pally have in common? Well, that would appear to be the collective aim of drinking the entire place dry, dressing up and watching the best in the business on the oche.
As Sportsmail went behind the scenes at the venue, one fact was instantly obvious – fancy dress is key. At Alexandra Palace I heard two bananas talking about their week, one Ketchup bottle telling another about how he was struggling to find a Christmas present for his wife and a group of Ali Gs discussing how many pints they were going to consume over the course of the day.
The group of Ali Gs won’t have been the only ones with alcohol on their mind. Organisers reckon around 750,000 pints will be sold over the course of the tournament. To break that down, that’s a staggering 46,875 pints a day.
The race for tickets is just as frantic as the one for the bar. The PDC put tickets for its annual tournament on sale back in July. Within days of their release, the majority of them had been snapped up.
No one knew who was playing when, or exactly what they were paying to watch, but that didn’t stop them from purchasing the tickets five months in advance!
For every fan that snapped up their seats, there were those left disappointed. Still, for them there is the small consolation of being able to watch it on the box at home – with cheaper booze and where fancy dress is optional.
Sky Sports, the exclusive live broadcaster of the Cazoo World Darts Championship, are responsible for the coverage throughout the Christmas period.
Inviting Sportsmail to go behind the scenes at the darts on December 16, we took in Alan Soutar v Mal Cuming, Boris Krcmar v Toru Suzuki and Adrian Lewis v Daniel Larsson in the first round, before catching Kim Huybrechts v Grant Sampson in the second round.
The fan head to North London to watch the world’s best battle it out for the Sid Waddell trophy
The event attracts celebrities – with the likes of Lewis Capaldi (above) attending this year
Broadcasting an event like the darts is a mammoth task. To put it into context, Sky Sports’ Director of Multi Sports, Helen Falkus, said preparations for next year’s tournament will begin the day after the current tournament ends.
She told Sportsmail: ‘It’s a cliché thing to say but, we start on January 4, if not now. Even last night we went right okay, we did an hours preview show which we haven’t done before… can we do that next year, what did we learn and how can we build on that.
‘So I think you are always thinking what can we do as this is the biggest event of the year. But, if you look at the dart calendar it sort of gains momentum from October. So we would be really focused from the beginning in September.’
Although it’s hard work, the Sky team seem to genuinely enjoy the job. I noticed nothing but good vibes between the staff members and Sky Sports’ Emma Paton confirmed my suspicions.
She told Sportsmail: ‘This is an event like no other. I present all the other tournaments throughout the year and of course we have people coming in fancy dress but I’ve been there on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke or Wolverhampton and it’s so different.
What do those in attendance have in common? The simple aim of drinking the place dry, dressing up and watching some top quality darts
Cazoo World Darts Championship started on December 15 and run until January 3
Adrian Lewis takes the acclaim of the crowd as he heads up to the oche for his match
‘So, this is the biggest event of the year and this is what we look forward to. All the other events of the year are kind of about this. It’s something like nothing else. It wouldn’t be the same without the crowd. It’s so loud in here but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Saying it’s loud at the Ally Pally could be the understatement of the century. The place is absolutely booming. There is constant chanting and singing between those in the stands and those sitting on the tables.
‘Boring, boring tables’ was shouted at those in the hospitality area. Why you may ask? Well, that’s because the hospitality section bans fancy dress. But, that didn’t stop the seated fans from giving some chat back.
One man stood up, pulled a fiver from his pocket, waved it in the air and sang the iconic Christmas song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ changing the lyrics to ‘feed the stands’ just to prove Capaldi is not the only lyrically gifted individual in the building.
Paton gets to witness such scenes unfold from the studio erected in the corner of the arena. She said the atmosphere the fans bring to the Ally Pally makes her enjoy her job but admitted her team also play a major role in her passion for the darts.
She said: ‘It’s more about the culture from the team. We work with the same people for each tournament and it’s a really good group of people. Wayne Mardle is the biggest character you will ever meet. He’s not just like that on TV, that’s actually him. So it’s people like him who make it what it is.
Sky Sports presenter Emma Paton (above) leads the coverage of the darts at the Ally Pally
‘He’s not just brilliant in his analysis, he’s engaging and he’s got this energy about him. It really is all about the people. This is the tournament we get excited for. This is the big one. This is the one that we think this is what it’s all about.’
I’m not surprised Paton and her team enjoy working at the Ally Pally and being around the fans so much. People from all walks of life attend the darts. Various generations are seen singing, dancing, cheering and drinking alongside each other.
Plus, for the stint I spend in the studio with Paton, all I could hear was chorus after chorus of ‘Emma, give us a wave’. It was clear that the fans loved interacting with Sky’s host just as much as she enjoyed chatting with them.
Falkus went on to explain how the darts has become synonymous with Christmas. She said: ‘When it comes to the World Championships at Christmas, I think a lot of people really associate this tournament with Christmas. It’s a huge part of what we try to bring to our customers over the Christmas period. A bit of fun and a bit of entertainment.’
I’m inclined to agree with Falkus given there were more elves present at the Ally Pally than in the North Pole. I also spotted the occasional reindeer and a few snowmen walking around the fan village.
Sky’s coverage is elite due to the number of camera’s they use at the venue in North London
They have cameras that are manned (above) and cameras that are controlled remotely
The arena was also inundated with Christmas parties and work dos, causing all sorts of chaos as they carried their jugs of beer around with them as they sang and danced their way to their seats.
It’s clear those in the venue are having fun. But how do Sky get those at home excited, without the copious amounts of alcohol and lack of willing sing-a-long participants in grandma’s front room on Boxing Day?
When asked about the Sky ambitions when it comes to their coverage, Falkus said: ‘I am listening to the music and the fun [in the arena] and I am thinking how can we bring that across to our viewers.
‘How can we make those sitting at home on their sofa, feel like they are part of the biggest darts party in town. I’m thinking have we got enough reporters in the crowd, are we connecting with people on social media in the right way, are we talking to people in the right way, are we actually showing the skill in the right way, and that’s where the touch screen comes in.
‘Then you have Holly our reporter in the fans village tying to interview bumble bees about whether or not they want to watch Peter Wright. I think it’s that blend that makes our coverage so unique.’
Sky Sports also have two commentator on site to give real-time coverage of the matches
They also have presenters on stage that will interview the players after their match
Those behind the scenes at Sky are also responsible for making the darts a success. Sky’s coverage of the World Championships is shown in 18 countries and four different continents.
Therefore, the pressure is on to deliver and that responsibility falls to the director, the producers and the spotter Keith Deller.
Sky’s experts can be found in the large production trucks out back. They are accompanied by 70 other staff members – who are also tasked with the job of ensuring everything runs smoothly.
I know what you’re thinking, a truck? Yes. It’s not any ordinary old truck though. It’s littered with an overwhelming number of screens, several brightly coloured control panels and a load of staff members shouting instructions back and fourth.
There are several departments within each truck – all responsible for different aspects of the show. The relationship between each department is pivotal to their success overall.
There is usually a vision mixer – who operates the large control panel used to select multiple camera set-ups and screen displays – however, given the speed of the darts, the director takes this role on as well!
Sky Sports is the exclusive live broadcaster of the Cazoo World Darts Championship
Sky Sports also have a reporter who interviews fans who are dressed up in the fan village
So, it’s vital he works well with the video desk – who are responsible for showing instant replays and grouping together a series of clips for the pundits to speak about.
While the Spotter, in this case Deller, must work well with the entire team as they are fundamental to expert coverage.
Spotting is essentially the art of predicting which shots the players are going for and, within a split second, instructing the rest of the crew, allowing cameramen to position their equipment and the director to pull the shots together.
It’s safe to say, Deller is an absolute magician when it comes to calling the darts. He’s also a great guy to have around the arena as he spends time down in the fan zone mingling with fans and taking pictures before getting down to business.
He even fended off some hecklers with a couple of quick replies before turning to me and joking: ‘They probably don’t even know who I am’ – which I find hard to believe given he won the 1983 BDO World Darts Championship and Unipart British Professional Championship in 1987.
Plus, he was the first qualifier ever to win the championship and remains one of the youngest champions in history.
Keith Deller (above) – former professional darts player – is one of Sky Sports’ spotters
Discussing his role as a spotter, Deller said: ‘It is a tough job but I love doing it and we do have fun in the truck. We are concentrating but funny things happen as well. Sky are a brilliant team to work with and they are very good at what they do.
‘But yeah, the most important thing is to have trust between your director and your spotter. Sometimes they will think ‘oh is he going down’ and I go ‘what are they doing’. So yeah it’s hard but it’s good fun. ‘
Deller went on to explain how difficult his job is and even shared a few amusing stories about him and Jonny Clayton counting wrong.
‘They always say the hardest job is the spotter because if the spotter can’t get it right, they’ve got no hope. It’s really tough but I just try my best. They miscount as well! There was one in particular. Jonny Clayton is a brilliant darts player but he’s not a great counter.
‘I’ve done it before. I did it in an international match. Normally, when you miscount, you miss by 10. I was played England vs Wales and I was getting a lot of stick from two and half thousand Wales fans. I had thrown it and hit the double. I then turned around and celebrated shouting ‘get in’.
‘But, they went no score. I said ‘what, no score?’. They told me I went bust. I miscounted by 10. All my lot, England, were laughing their heads off as we had already won the match. But they went ‘oh what a wally’.
‘While Johnny went triple 20, so he should have stayed up. So, I know now he got a 61. He miscounted. So I went, triple 15, double eight – which I know is no good.
‘He’s gone triple 15, double eight. No score, he had miscounted. My team said to me, how do you know that. I said well, he should have stayed up and he didn’t so if he’s going to go down he going to go triple 15. They said it was unbelievable. ‘
Sky Sports use their large production trucks and have several smaller trucks on site too
The trucks (pictured above) are where the magic happens and the show is produced
Sky’s coverage is also elite due to the number of camera’s they use. Sky have 23 HD cameras on location, with an additional 11 3D cameras drafted in for the semi-finals and final.
But it’s the minor details that blew me away. Alexandra Palace is a listed building. That means there are all sorts of restrictions and requirements Sky Sports and the PDC team must abide by.
There is weight restrictions on the roof which can make installing the camera’s difficult. During the summer, production companies are allowed to add 15 tonnes per arch and in winter 7 tonnes per arch.
However, the weather can affect this. The day I headed to the Ally Pally, it was snowing. So they had to take the weight of the snow landing on the roof into consideration. Nevertheless, Sky and the PDC made it work.
There are an overwhelming number of screens inside the trucks at the Ally Pally
The video team are also located in the trucks and control the instant replays the fans see
Sky’s impressive view figures pay testament to their coverage. Last year the final peaked at 1.5million and averaged at 1.2million.
Additionally, Sky’s YouTube channel for the Darts has already amassed 50.3K subscribers, with some videos receiving over 7million views.
Speaking about the importance of the dart for Sky’s portfolio, Falkus said: ‘Darts is a huge part of our portfolio. Along with F1, it regularly delivers us excellent audiences.
‘One of the things I think is really interesting about the darts is that it one of biggest female viewing sports. Not many people would expect that. But, actually, we find it has a really broad appeal.’
The director (pictured above) is responsible for selecting what the fans see on their screen