The wait is nearly over for darts fans as the biggest tournament in the sport – the PDC World Championship – gets set to begin at London’s iconic Alexandra Palace and Stuart Pyke will once again be calling the action behind the microphone for Sky Sports.
A sports journalist, broadcaster and commentator for over 30 years, Stuart has been part of Sky Sports’ highly acclaimed darts coverage since 2003, working alongside the established Sky darting trio of Sid Waddell, Dave Lanning and John Gwynne.
During his time working in the sport, Stuart has witnessed the phenomenal rebirth of darts as a major televised spectacle that attracts thousands of fans to venues across the country, as well as a significant following on television and social media.
Stuart will again be working alongside familiar darting figures such as Eric Bristow, Rod Harrington, Wayne Mardle and John Part in the Sky Sports commentary box at Ally Pally this year, with all the action being shown exclusively live on Sky Sports from Thursday, December 18.
The growth of the tournament, both in terms of its status and viewing figures, has been reflected by Sky’s decision to dedicate an entire channel to the PDC World Darts Championship for the first time, with Sky Sports 3 being rebranded as Sky Sports Darts for the duration of the event.
Alongside his Sky Sports work, Stuart also commentates on ITV’s coverage of PDC events throughout the year, as well as on a number of overseas televised tournaments, ensuring his voice is heard on pretty much all televised PDC darts during the course of the season.
Away from the oche, Stuart is also a huge follower of football and rugby league. Since 2002, he has been a regular commentator for BBC Radio 5 live on Challenge Cup finals, Super League and international matches, as well as a live reporter at domestic football matches for 5 live Sport and Final Score.
Before the first darts were thrown in anger at Ally Pally 2015, Stuart spoke to Sport On The Box about his commentary career in darts, the growth of the PDC, his memories of working alongside the great Sid Waddell, and also picked out his players to watch out for over the festive period.
Follow Stuart on Twitter: @stuartpykesport
SOTB: It has been another spectacular year for darts with so many great matches and unforgettable moments. How much are you looking forward to the this year’s World Championship at Ally Pally?
Stuart Pyke: It’s the pinnacle of the year for everybody involved in darts, from the players to the officials, referees and even us commentators.
There is just something magical about it and while many of the other tournaments on the calendar are growing in stature, what has become apparent is that the Ally Pally has really established itself very quickly as the home of World Championship darts.
This year’s tournament sold out in terms of ticket sales in record time and more than 50,000 people will be going over the course of the two weeks, underlining just how huge the event now is on the Christmas sporting schedule, and Ally Pally is the perfect auditorium for it.
A big change this year on the TV coverage front sees the introduction of Sky Sports’ very own darts channel for the tournament itself.
How excited are you by this prospect and how much does Sky’s decision, to give the event its own channel, reflect how far darts has come on in terms of being a major TV sport?
Very much so, because darts is massive on so many levels now and I think Sky’s commitment and dedication to the sport is now there for everyone to see.
Darts gets exceptional viewing figures all year round, the World Championship in particular gets record audiences pretty much year in, year out, and people buy into the fact that it is now such as huge event.
That’s not just because there is a quarter-of-a-million pounds on offer for the winner, but more so because of its growing prestige, something which reigning champion Michael van Gerwen and many other players would also say.
The recession we had at the end of the last decade affected many sports, but in fact darts came out stronger than most others and expanded during this time, with more TV tournaments, prize money and sponsors on board.
I can only see the sport continuing to rise and rise. People keep saying to me ‘well surely the bubble is going to burst’, and I just shake my head and say ‘no it’s not’!
The success of darts on Sky over the years has been down to a simple formula. Give fans what they want and they will turn on to watch, and that’s what we’ll be doing this Christmas, so I’m hugely looking forward to seeing how fans respond to darts having its own dedicated channel.
You’ve been commenting on darts for more than a decade now and your time in the sport has coincided with this amazing growth for the PDC.
How did you first get involved with commentating on the sport and had you always been a keen fan?
I had been reporting on darts for Sky Sports News during the late-1990s and early 2000s and got the opportunity to join the commentary team in the summer of 2003, largely thanks to presenter Dave Clark, who suggested my name forward to Sky’s executive producer.
Prior to that, I had always been a huge follower of darts going back a long way to the early days of the Embassy World Championship, so it was a thrill to join the commentary team alongside the great trio of Sid Waddell, Dave Lanning and John Gwynne.
The first game I worked on for Sky was at the World Matchplay in Blackpool between John Lowe and Keith Deller, with Sid commentating alongside me, which looking back was just a magical moment.
But even from those days just over a decade ago, darts has changed hugely, largely thanks to the work of Barry Hearn, the PDC and Sky, who have all made it into the phenomenon that it is, and there is a real commitment to carry this success forward further.
It is great to see that viewing figures and spectator numbers are going up and up, and with even more tournaments next year, increased prize money on offer and sponsors continuously knocking at the door, the whole PDC package is working.
Even those who aren’t great lovers of sport admit to me that they love watching the darts because of the entertainment and excitement on offer, plus its ability to produce amazing moments of television – last year’s two nine-dart finishes in one afternoon session at the World Championship being a great example.
The fact that the standard of play is now so exceptional and is getting better all the time is also a reason why people keep coming back to watch, and for me this year’s World Championship is genuinely the most open we have had in since the PDC started.
The PDC World Championship trophy is now named in honour of the late Sid Waddell, who you worked with on your very first Sky Sports darts commentary assignment.
What are your favourite recollections of working alongside him in the commentary box?
Sid was just an absolute legend, an extraordinary gentleman and epitomised everything that is good about the sport. His unique style will never be repeated or bettered.
As a person he was a great guide to me in my early years on commentary. He was always there to give any bits of advice he could and would be hugely constructive when he thought I was doing something right, or equally something wrong, so he was always very open and honest.
As many will know, Sid was always extremely animated in the commentary box, both in his delivery, with his brilliant one-liners and catchphrases, as well as his antics within the booth.
When commenting alongside him, I would always sit on the right-hand side while Sid would sit on the left. He used to flick me with his hand all the way through the match, such was his genuine love for the darts he was watching, though more often than not he would leave me with bruises on my arm!
There is no point in anyone even trying to replicate what Sid did, because he was so unique and so special, and the fact that the PDC World Championship trophy is named in his honour says all that needs to be said about contribution to our sport.
There will never be another Sid and all of us in the Sky Sports team miss him greatly because he, along with John Gwynne and Dave Lanning, helped put Sky’s coverage on the map.
Sid was one of the key pioneers in getting darts on television and helped enthuse millions of new fans around the world.
What for you makes the game such compelling viewing and what do you attribute its re-emergence over the past two decades down to?
For me it is simply just compelling viewing and produces such brilliant sporting entertainment and drama virtually every time.
We all owe a huge amount of gratitude to Sid Waddell and Dave Lanning in helping to establish televised darts in the early years and they also helped bring forward the coverage into a new era with Sky in the mid-1990s.
From just the Circus Tavern and the World Matchplay in Blackpool in the first year to the hundreds of hours of coverage a year we get nowadays, you can see how much the game has evolved.
Marketing has been huge factor. Sky, Barry Hearn and Matchroom Sport have all came on board and have totally turned the fortune of darts around, because they have all provided the base, from the prize money, venues, organisation and skills that go into running a successful tournament.
Barry Hearn, PDC chief executive Matthew Porter and the rest of the organisation, past and preset, all deserve huge credit in making the events look professional, while Sky’s expertise in televising top sporting events also gives the whole production a slick and professional feel for viewers at home.
The walk-ons, the music and special effects are as much a part of the show as the darts itself, especially for the thousands of fans inside the arenas as most of them are watching on the big screens, so all the razzmatazz adds to the atmosphere and the occasion, all of which makes a night at the darts so unique.
Compared to other sporting events at the moment, darts is also affordable to watch and people come in their thousands and all pretty much have a great experience, with many coming back time after a time.
I think another key factor in the growing interest in darts over the last few years is the fact that there is genuine competition to the great Phil taylor, who hasn’t been winning everything in sight, which has helped other players, such as Michael van Gerwen, Adrian Lewis and James Wade, establish themselves and win major TV titles.
As darts continue to grow and evolve, with more TV coverage than ever before, what in your view is the next direction for the sport over the coming years?
I think the next area for growth in the sport is likely to be an expansion into international markets. We already have strong a strong following in parts of Europe and Australia, though I know that the PDC would in particular to break into America and the Far East.
The players themselves, to some degree, are also responsible as well. Lets not forget that while we talk about the razzmatazz, the prize money and everything else, you’ve got to have the product and that means the players must be able to produce week in week out, which does place extra pressure on them.
The amount of epic games that we now witness, as well as all the nine-darters, which of course used to be very rare, are now very common to point were you’re surprised if there aren’t any at a TV event.
Overall though, I think everything is up for grabs for darts and as far as the future is concerned I can only see the game growing and expanding into a truly international sport.
We see a wider variety of players winning tour events nowadays, but what special qualities do you think a player need to win the World Championship compared to the other tournaments on the PDC calendar?
Sheer belief in my view. The skills and talent of the top players are a given when it comes to the biggest tournaments on the calendar, but I think the mental fortitude and sheer belief that a player can perform to their best throughout is so important and makes all the difference.
Just look at the World Championship two years ago, when Michael van Gerwen arguably should have beaten Phil Taylor in the final, having missed darts to take a 5-2 lead. The Dutchman then didn’t go onto win another set after that.
But that experience stood him in huge stead going into last year’s tournament when he went onto win it. He looked down and out against Gary Anderson in the third round when he trailed 3-1, but he fought back to win 4-3, so it is that kind of attitude and spirit that is needed when your perhaps not playing your best and it is those peaks and troughs which players will need to ride out during the course of the championship if they are to win it.
With the tournament falling over the Christmas period, which followed on from a hectic playing schedule in the autumn, it really comes down to nerve at this point and the longer format should allow players more time to settle, but they can’t afford to be complacent at any stage, such is the strength of the field this year.
More to follow…
Coverage starts on Thursday, December 18 – Exclusively live on Sky Sports Darts