Media Matters: BBC and PDC – A Fleeting Romance

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NEARLY 4 years after it was last held, the PDC have confirmed that the Champions League of Darts is not currently set to return.

The Champions League, held between 2016 and 2019 on the BBC, was one of many sporting projects to be shelved as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But to say this came without any fanfare would be putting it lightly. Neither the PDC nor the BBC ever publicly commented on the issue when it failed to go ahead in 2020, nor have either remarked on the future of their broadcasting relationship since.

The news was originally somewhat lost in a flurry of Covid-related changes and amendments to the calendar. But the PDC have officially confirmed to Darts World that their deal with the BBC expired in 2019, and that “following the circumstances around the Covid-19 pandemic, this was not extended”.

It was certainly a big story when the PDC and BBC originally linked arms back in 2016. The primary reason for this was that it meant Auntie’s four-decade long broadcast of the BDO World Championship had come to an end. 

It was a move which proved a bitter blow to the now-extinct organisation and left it often scrabbling around for TV interest in its final years.

The BBC’s deal with a rival circuit may not quite have been ‘Bake Off to Channel ‘4’ or ‘Match of the Day to ITV’ levels of surprise, but it was nonetheless a significant move for an organisation which had been a huge part of the modern darts story.

Back then, the BBC’s head of sport Barbara Slater wrote: “Darts has always had wide appeal and it is great that audiences will get the chance to see all the action from the world’s top players live on BBC Two and across our platforms.”

The move, although intriguing, didn’t feel like some transformative increase in the BBC’s darts interest. If anything, it was a downsize: a 9-day broadcast to a 2-day one, a World Championship to a purposefully invented new major.

It did, however, come at a time in which the BBC was becoming ever more ruthless in what live sport it was still prepared to pay up for. In the last decade, Formula 1, horse racing and golf have all just about disappeared from the BBC’s roster.

In short, the Champions League provided a mutually beneficial experiment in what PDC darts on the BBC could look like. For the Beeb, they had a pretty lowstakes opportunity to broadcast a popular and growing sport. And for the PDC, it was a chance to showcase darts on the UK’s biggest channel and put a further nail in the BDO coffin.

But with cuts the buzzword once again in Broadcasting House, and the Covid-19 pandemic forcing further readjustments in its priorities, the Champions League was not to make it. Farewell, old friend, we hardly knew ye.

And if the BBC were pulling the plug, then the tournament was destined for disappearance. Unless ITV or Sky were going to come up with an offer to front the tournament, a quiet retreat into the darting memory was perhaps always likely.

The format itself – a top 8 of the world playing out a group stage then semi-finals and final – never felt that revolutionary or different to that already offered across the year. 

The short-running tournament did however produce some fantastic moments; Phil Taylor winning the inaugural crown in one of his last ‘major’ victories and Mensur Suljovic’s maiden TV event title both stick out.

Does this then mark the end of live darts on the BBC? Well, not quite. In February, for the second year running, live coverage of the World Seniors Championship was available on BBC Sport online and on iPlayer.

And it is a deal important to the World Seniors’s organiser Jason Francis, who told me: “The BBC have been incredibly supportive in covering the last two World Championships. The heritage of the sport’s TV coverage lies with them and many of our players made their names on that channel.”

ITV remain the go-to for free-to-air live PDC darts and show no signs of letting up their extensive contract, which features 25 days of coverage every year.

But given the way the Champions League sank without a trace, a revival in BBC interest seems unlikely. Luckily the game is in good enough health that such news does not provide as significant damage as it did back in the 1980s.


Images: Darts World Magazine

Orignally published in Darts World Extra 8

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