The PDC World Matchplay, held at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, gets underway on July 20. In a two-part blog, Luke Nicoli takes a look at the history of the tournament and why it’s one of the most highly-anticipated events on the calendar…
While the PDC World Championship, at London’s Alexandra Palace, is widely regarded as the corporation’s jewel in the crown, there is another tournament held in greater esteem by many darting aficionados.
The salubrious Empress Ballroom at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, has hosted the World Matchplay since its inception in 1994 and over the years has established a niche position in the calendar. Indeed, where Ally Pally prides itself as a festive affair, a Matchplay sojourn can always be pencilled in for mid-July as the holiday season gets into full swing on the Lancashire coast.
The 3,500 venue will again be packed to the rafters for its eight-day duration, with £150,000 on offer for this month’s winner. It’s all a far cry from those early days when the fledgling WDC (now PDC) was charged by Sky television with the task of finding a summer alternative to the inaugural World Championship, which had been a ratings hit at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet.
Step forward Dick Allix, the WDC’s CEO and tournament director, who leaned on his previous calling as a manager and promoter for the music impresario, Arthur Howes, for inspiration. “While I’d been involved in darts since 1979, initially as Eric Bristow’s manager, I’d toured with the likes of the Four Tops, The Stylistics, Marvin Gaye, Kool and the Gang, even ACDC, so I knew plenty of venues across the country and I certainly knew the Winter Gardens,” he recalls.
“With the World Championship down south, it was important to have a northern alternative – as well as a summer one – and I knew that in areas of heavy industry in northern England and Scotland, whole towns would shut down for ‘wakes week’ and many would head to Blackpool, so we settled on the Winter Gardens – it was the obvious and stand-out venue.
”We also decided it would be held on the first week of the school holidays to help pull in families as it was our mission to bring in younger fans and break the perception of darts being an old man’s sport surrounded by cigarette smoke and pints of ale.”
With a major summer tournament now complementing a winter showpiece it really was game on, yet where the Worlds had its own illustrious history to fall back on, from the BDO years, the World Matchplay had to find its own path and was certainly no overnight success.
“The real challenge initially was how to fill a venue of that size,” recalls Harrows sales director, Robert Pringle, a driving force behind the PDC’s evolution in those formative years. “While the players were very happy and Sky backed this new competition, just how could we fill this cavern of a place?
“Remember, these were the days before the internet took off so Ken Parkin, a former BDO promotions guy, went up to Blackpool several weeks before the competition began and was given the instruction to wallpaper the town!”
“Off he went leaflet dropping in licensed premises, working men’s clubs, chip shops, everywhere. That was until he collapsed with a heart condition and was rushed into hospital. He ended up discharging himself the very next day to carry on his leaflet drop.
“He set an example to us all but it didn’t hide the fact that we had so few people through the door for that first tournament in ‘94. In fact, we had to place the punters strategically so when the cameras panned onto the crowd, it looked busy when in reality we had three men and a dog in there.”
“That first one I affectionately called a ‘furniture exhibition’ as there were more seats than people!” interjects Allix. “But fair play to Ken, he always did a bloody good job for us. His drive and determination was an example for us all to follow.”