A British Teenager Just Boosted Pro Darts Betting in the US
Darts is a game an estimated 17 million Americans play regularly every year in bars and homes across the nation. There’s a distinct American version of it, played regionally in Pennsylvania and nearby states, and North America has had a three-time World Champion in Canadian John Part.
However, none of that has really helped professional darts in the U.S. The globally popular pro darts leagues have been largely ignored by American sports fans. And by extension, bettors.
That has mostly meant, despite its growing popularity, darts is still largely considered a game played in bars and college frat houses, rather than being taken seriously as a sport on big stages.
But is that all about to change?
Littler and Large Bets
Across the pond in Britain and Europe, things have been very different for decades. The top professional darts players, mostly from the U.K and the Netherlands, can earn hundreds of thousands a year in sponsorships and league payments.
Most recently, the big news happened at the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Championship, where the final broke betting records for the sport at sportsbook platform provider Kambi.
That’s the same Kambi that powers several big name U.S. sportsbook platforms, including parts of DraftKings, the relaunched Bally Bet, and, previously, Barstool Sportsbook.
Largely fueled by interest in the hugely likeable 16-year old finalist Luke Littler, Kambi said 63% more Americans bet on the PDC’s flagship darts event this year than any other darts event.
Littler lost the final to world number one Luke Humphries. But the thrillingly close match and the teenager’s fairy-tale story captured global attention.
The event was “truly remarkable, driving unprecedented interest and betting engagement globally,” according to Kambi’s SVP of Trading, Simon Noy.
That rise in viewership and betting interest hasn’t come out of nowhere. Quietly, U.S. darts has been racking up some consistent interest in line with the global growth.
Three years ago, UK newspaper The Guardian published a piece on darts in the U.S. It highlighted that, at the time, the U.S. lacked of a single player in the world’s 150 best.
Going into 2024, there are 12. That includes seven in the top 100, three in top 50, and Indiana’s Danny Lauby, who recently became the first American to join the top 10 Darts players in the world.
To be fair, BetMGM opened in the UK just in 2023. It is also set to sponsor the next PDC World Championship.
So clearly, growing interest is there. Can professional darts push on to become a serious interest for U.S. fans and bettors?
To understand how it might, let’s a brief detour into the history of the darts. Hint: it’s a game that has some experience with changing up its brand image.
If you’d asked your average Brit about darts 20 years ago — a sport we invented, by the way — they’d probably think of large, hairy men with names like Phil “The Power” Taylor or Andy “The Pie Man” Smith, sinking pints of post-match bitter ales in smoky pub backrooms.
In fact, the very first Professional Darts Corporation World Darts Championship in 1998 was mainly sponsored by super-strength beer brand Skol. (There were 20 other world championships before that, but they were under different brands.)
Competitors literally used to take to the stage drinking beers, usually strong bitter ales, and smoking cigarettes.
Not that the pub mentality never got in the way of the sport’s popularity in Europe. In 1983, the World Championship final saw 8.3 million viewers on British public broadcaster the BBC.
However, by the end of the 1980s, things declined somewhat. The constant boozing and smoking publicly took its toll on some players, as it famously did so on the scene of popular British pub sport snooker around the same time.
That’s when professional darts’ powers-that-be decided to switch up its image.
Pints were swapped out for bottles of water. Smoking was banned on stage. Productions were improved. More foreign competitors, some from afar afield as China and Australia, were invited to the world championships. Players started walking out with theme tunes and making an effort to have bigger personalities than beer bellies. Fans were encouraged to dress up and do the drinking instead of the players.
And, gradually, the darts execs’ vision worked out.
The Future of Darts
Now in 2024, teenage Luke Littler’s huge fairy-tale run to the PDC World Championship final has put darts back in the spotlight after a few years of quiet growth.
In an interesting summation of the turnaround and the potential it has with U.S. bettors, the championship also saw 31-year-old Danny Lauby Jr. of Terra Haute, Indiana, pull of a clean sweep victory over previous long-term U.S. number one player Leonard “Soldier” Gates, 51.
That victory put Lauby into the top 10, a feat which Gates had never previously managed. It also must have been a proud moment for his father, Dan Lauby Sr. The elder Lauby played darts semi-professionally in the U.S. since the 1990s and also qualified to play in four PDC World Championships. However, in four attempts, he didn’t win a single game.
So, we have Kambi, a big deal in U.S. sports betting, saying darts betting is more popular than ever globally and with Americans, it has a young (for darts) up-and-coming U.S. star and the backing of a sports corporation that has experience in pulling off a big rebrand of its image.
Additionally, Las Vegas-based BetMGM is set to be main sponsor of the 2024 PDC World Championships, and FanDuel owner Flutter Entertainment (which has a longstanding relationship with the PDC) is finalizing a move to the New York Stock Exchange from London.
Aside from the wisdom in not betting against those who are skilled at throwing very sharp objects extremely accurately, all of that surely makes professional darts one to keep a keen eye on in the future of U.S. sports betting.