Dhe rush hour in London is notorious. Despite the tight schedule, the underground trains in the early morning and late afternoon reliably become a close-up experience that is otherwise only known from the first rows of sold-out pop concerts. And the iconic red double-deckers struggle through the congested streets at full capacity and with fogged-up windows. The TFL, which reports to the mayor, has been offering discounted tickets for years in order to spread out the number of people at least a little.
The W3 bus line is not affected. Irrespective of clock and working hours, the Routemasters commute reliably between Finsbury Park and Northumberland Park through the tranquil north of the British capital – with the exception of the two and a half weeks at the end of the year. Then they come back, all the gnomes, beer mugs, smurfs, toy soldiers, bowling pins and horse jockeys. Pilgrims in foreign robes on their way to their cathedral: the World Championship of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).
Twice a day, almost 3,200 fans make their way to the Alexandra Palace, which is enthroned on a 95-meter-high hill. Rides become bus parties. Back and forth from what is probably the most bizarre and colorful major event on the sports calendar. “Just the fact that it’s on a mountain makes it so special. You take a cab up there and you see all the disguised spectators. That’s special,” says Gabriel Clemens, Germany’s best darts professional.
The Ally Pally is an important part of the brand
The Darts World Championship is the Alexandra Palace is the Darts World Championship. No other sport is so closely linked to a tournament and a venue. The Olympic Games, handball, rugby, athletics and swimming change the venues of their global title fights just as regularly as the Super Bowl in American football or the Champions League final in soccer. In golf, there’s the US Masters and the British Open. Wimbledon is a magical place for tennis players, but they would say the same at Flushing Meadows or Roland Garros. Formula 1 does its laps in Interlagos as well as in Imola, and even the Tour de France changes its route from year to year.
While in 2023 even the Ironman will no longer take place in Hawaii for the first time, the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) is making a clear commitment to staying at Ally Pally. “Of course, we kept checking back to see if moving would make sense,” says Matt Porter. The Englishman has been CEO since 2008. “But the discussions are no longer there. It was very important for us to make this event a brand. We had reached that point since the World Championship was known as Ally Pally. But she is also known for the Christmas season, for the long duration of the tournament. If we were to move somewhere else, we might lose some of the feel-good factor.”
His last sentence applies to the fans and the organizer, who has plenty of space in the 13,000 square meter complex to meet the demands of the TV stations and media and to set up his fan zone with a merchandise stand, snack bars and bars. The players, on the other hand, are confronted with the peculiarities of the old walls on every match day. The ubiquitous drafts even make it onto the stage on particularly windy days, and the way out of the training area two floors below can be like a march through several climate zones for the players through cool and wet warehouses and heated rooms. In many places it drips from the ceiling, in some areas the water collects on the floor and stairs. And anyone who has looked at the staff toilets may ask themselves whether the Queen Consort, Alexandra of Denmark, did her business here. The building erected in 1873 was named after the monarch.
It houses conference rooms, theatres, a pub, restaurants and even an ice ring. Major events such as concerts take place in the 10,000-seat Great Hall, a walled but roofless garden of the palace until the 20th century. However, the Darts World Cup, the biggest figurehead, is limited to the West Hall, which is two-thirds smaller. And that, although a multiple of tickets could be sold. For the first time in the history of the World Cup, the tournament, which will last until January 3rd, was and is sold out every day. Two weeks before the start there was not a single ticket left.
“No unnecessary risk just to crave a little more”
The PDC is a company, not an association. It has to earn money and has subjected pub sports to extensive professionalization over the past few decades. Formats like the Premier League now take place in front of up to 15,000 spectators in Liverpool, Berlin or Rotterdam. But the World Cup stays in the living room. “I would like it if you rotated. One year in Germany, the next year in Scotland, then England or Ireland,” says Gerwyn Price, the number one in the world, who is traditionally booed at Ally Pally and even more so than anywhere else: “Of course, the atmosphere isn’t like that for me personally positive at Alexandra Palace. But regardless of that, I find the atmosphere at other tournaments much better. Things are changing. Do you remember the BDO World Championships in Lakeside or the Circus Tavern?” The arrows flew there in front of a little more than 1000 spectators until 2007, then the PDC moved.
And I want to stay there for a long time. “We are not yet as global as the World Cup. Also in terms of sponsoring and our partners. And it’s not realistic for us to say: ‘Let’s go to Sweden now.’ How are we supposed to sell 80,000 tickets? We shouldn’t take unnecessary risks just to crave a little more,” says Porter, delivering the main argument: “At 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon we have exactly the same picture as at 9 p.m. on a Friday evening. At Wimbledon, Center Court is only half full on a Wednesday lunchtime.”
What he means: A move to a larger hall could lead to higher ticket income, but in the medium term it would be at the expense of the atmosphere and character. Especially on the first days of the tournament, there could be gaps in the audience in the afternoon. Especially since the iconic venue would have to be left in any case. Darts have been played in front of 10,000 spectators in the Great Hall. But it’s been 70 years since the finals of the News of the World Championship, the final rounds of a national pub tournament. Back then, there weren’t as many TV broadcasting vehicles and technical needs as there are today. “You can’t put the fan zone and TV production that we have in the Great Hall anywhere else,” says Porter. “So if we put the fan zone in the West Hall and increase the capacity in the Great Hall, then we don’t have more enough space for bars and toilets.”
And so they prefer to stay in their little hall at the top of the hill. Porter and the PDC are happy to accept that it is dilapidated and difficult to reach, and that they could sell more tickets elsewhere. “The most important thing is that we maintain the intensity of the atmosphere,” he says. Clemens agrees: “I think it’s good that you’re staying at Alexandra Palace. It’s cult and now world-famous.”