Phil Taylor gave darts the power to reach a global audience
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On the conclusion of the New Year's Day finale to the 2018 PDC World Darts Championship, the game said goodbye to the greatest player in its history in Phil 'The Power' Taylor. After a remarkable career with 16 world titles and over 100 televised titles, Stoke-on-Trent's Taylor couldn't quite complete the fairytale and finish on top of the world, losing 7-2 in sets to Rob Cross of Kent, but to get to the final is still an achievement to be proud of at the age of 57.
For Cross, the final was the culmination of a truly exceptional season. This time last year, Cross was an electrician, yet to begin his professional career in earnest after winning his place on the PDC ProTour via the second-tier Challenge Tour. To even reach the World Championship after only a year on tour is noteworthy enough, let alone winning 4 tour events, reaching 2 TV finals and beating some of the best players in the world to end up winning the world title itself.
In many ways, Cross's triumph is reminiscent of Taylor's victory on his own World Championship debut. Back in 1990, the biggest name in the world of darts was 5-time world champion, Eric Bristow. Like Taylor this time around, he was not at his very best, yet was still a top player, and was a master of mind games. Despite the gulf in experience, he proved no match for Taylor, going down 6-1
Since then, the game of darts has been on a rollercoaster ride, with Taylor crucial to its development. After a boom in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, darts was beginning to gain a bad image in the eyes of the public, with alcohol and cigarettes commonplace on stage at tournaments. Previously, there had been several televised events, but by 1989, this was whittled down to 1, the BDO World Darts Championship.
By 1992, unsatisfied with the measures taken by the British Darts Organisation to arrest this decline, the world's top players at the time decided to form a new organisation, the World Darts Council. Initially, this came at a huge cost to the players, who were banned from competing in BDO events from 1994 onwards. As a result, the WDC commissioned their own World Championship, televised on Sky Sports, but legal struggles kept prize money below that of the BDO's version until 2001.
By this time, Taylor was slap bang in the middle of his prime, dominating the Professional Darts Corporation (as the WDC became known) field. After losing out in the inaugural WDC World Championship final to his great friend Dennis Priestley in 1994, he went on to win the next 8 editions. His dominance was so great that many of the chasing pack were beaten mentally before a dart had been thrown.
Taylor's brilliance, as well as the marketing genius of Sky Sports and Barry Hearn, attracted new fans in droves, and when challenges to his dominance emerged in the shape of Canadian John Part and Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld, the sport was taken to new heights. For all of Taylor's achievements, it is his World Championship final losses to those two players (in 2003 and 2007 respectively) which remain perhaps two of the greatest games ever played.
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The balance of power was by now firmly held by the PDC. It remains so, as the standard has only risen since then, with Adrian Lewis, Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson all taking home world titles and proving themselves as rivals to Taylor. Rob Cross is now firmly in the mix, so even without the greatest player ever to play the game, there is still plenty of excitement to come for darts fans.
Taylor certainly leaves darts in a much healthier position than when he burst onto the scene; the sport is far more lucrative and international than ever before. Next year, there will be £2,500,000 on offer at the Alexandra Palace for the World Championship, with a whopping £500,000 for the winner.
This is fuelled by interest from overseas; as in the Netherlands over a decade ago, in Germany, the game is growing fast. A whopping 2.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the Cross-Taylor game last week, a remarkable figure given that neither player is German. The Premier League will visit Berlin for the first time this year, which is sure to be a brilliant occasion. Germany also plays host to many European Tour events, as well as its own leg of the World Series (along with the USA, China, Australia and New Zealand).
Overall, a record 24 nations were represented at Ally Pally in December, a sign that the game has evolved from its humble British pub origins, and is now a big deal across the world. For this, darts owes a huge debt of gratitude to Phil Taylor, without whom this boom may never have been possible.