Oliver Albert Croft OBE formed the British Darts Organisation on January 7th 1973. During the next four decades he ruled British darts from Muswell Hill with an iron fist. Uncompromising, pioneering, and despotic, it is worth remembering that the BDO itself was a breakaway from the National Darts Association of Great Britain. Olly was once a rebel himself.

On August 7th 2011, precisely 38 years and 7 months after the inception of the BDO, Olly Croft was booted off the board he founded in a ruthless but long-overdue coup by his member counties. A man who once said “I don’t owe any darts player a living” now finds himself out of work.

One side of the tungsten curtain holds Olly Croft up as a standard bearer for darts, rightly stating that the sport would not be where it is today were it not for Olly’s efforts over four decades. He helped drag darts out of the pubs and onto prime time television, turning working men who throw arrers into household names.

The other side of the curtain readily grant this indisputable fact but counter that darts would now be in a much healthier condition if Olly Croft had relinquished his grip some years ago.

Given the parlous state of relations with the BBC, and the dwindling attraction of BDO darts as a sporting spectacle, this point is also difficult to refute. The world has changed, the landscape of darts has changed, but Olly and his friends have not.

He has simply refused to adapt or buckle and has ignored all cries for change at the top. Relations with the PDC have never defrosted and the distrust of Barry Hearn’s PDC that emanates from the BDO board descends directly from Olly Croft and his maroon blazered cronies.

For years Olly and the board have had the full weight of the counties behind him and whilst the BBC and Bob Potter have been able to prop the organisation up blind eyes have been turned towards the less desirable aspects of the rose garden.

Not any longer. However, for it to come to out and out mutiny is shocking and surprising. And for the mutiny to be spear headed by a stalwart Olly ally such as Martin Adams is something that was unthinkable just a few months before.

As of Sunday the new board of directors for the British Darts Organisation is:

Barry Gilbey (Chairman)

Vic Sexton

Wayne Williams

Martin Adams

Sue Getty

Derek Weston

 

So how has this situation come about?

There is a depressing symmetry to the events that triggered the infamous darts split in 1993. Sixteen players were so disillusioned with dwindling sponsorship money, increasing dictatorship from the board (Olly in particular), and a dramatic fall in television exposure from the heady days of the late 70’s and early 80’s (in 1983 around 15 tournaments were broadcast, by 1993 only the Embassy World Championship remained on our screens), that they went off and formed their own organisation.

The World Darts Council (WDC) eventually became the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), triggering the biggest feud in sport. Olly has never forgiven the players who split and has been at loggerheads with the PDC ever since.

The echoes of 1993 are audible – diminishing television coverage, struggle with sponsorship, a lack of marketing nous, and a pig headed doggedness from Olly and the board – and amateur darts is suffering once again.

The BBC’s recent coverage has been wretched and their pulling out of the Winmau World Masters (handing coverage to ESPN) has made the situation perilous. The BeeB appear to have lost interest. ESPN will no doubt do a good job but millions of people will be denied the chance to see one of the BDO’s flagship events.

The fact is an ageing, out of touch board has allowed the BDO to stagnate and, viewed in the shadow of its nemesis, BDO darts is simply not as attractive a televised spectacle as PDC darts is. New ideas are required and a genuine marketing strategy needs to be put in place to secure funding and backing for the major BDO tournaments.

The PDC provide an entertainment package that is an attractive proposition for sponsors and broadcasters. The BDO rely on a purist’s view where darts is the star and the frills are a distraction. In the modern era this does not cut it for an ever more demanding public audience. The BBC’s loss of interest is telling.

On top of this a clash of bias between the BDO and PDC has caused constant bickering and does nothing to help the sport. Football suffers because of the vested interests of the FA and the Premier League who have differing ideas of where football should go. The rich are getting richer while grass roots football suffers more as each season passes.

The same is evident with the two rival darts organisations who have never worked together to the detriment of darts as a whole. Having two Professional World Championships is frankly ridiculous and the situation becomes more farcical by the year.

The answer is simple: a structured 2-tiered amateur-professional framework is essential to the continued development of the sport of darts. The money generated at the top must feed down to the grass roots and strengthen the foundations of the pyramid.

The logistics are not so simple. It will take a climb down from both sides and the desire to get round the negotiating table to thrash out an agreement that will propel darts into a new open era.

Barry Hearn’s offer to buy the BDO, made towards the end of 2009 (immediately rejected out of hand by Olly and also  later by the counties), smacked of mischief making and did not give enough assurances that the grass roots of darts will not only be protected, preserved and financed, but that it will be run in the correct manner by people with the knowledge, desire, and skills to help it flourish under a PDC ceiling.

There is little wrong with low level amateur darts that is run by a legion of unpaid volunteers. Ladies darts could be improved but it is mostly trouble at the top of the men’s game.

The career progression for any aspiring darts player has to be to make a living out of full time darts and be successful at the very pinnacle of the sport. Under Olly’s regime any player ‘defecting’ to the PDC was effectively ostracised from what was once his home.

The hope is that the new BDO board adopt a more broad minded approach to thawing the ice and that the cold war can be ended. Reunification of darts is a dream for most and perhaps this is the first step down that road?

The fear is that the ousted Olly Croft will want revenge for his humiliation and will attempt to sabotage anything that the BDO do. The BDO will unite with the PDC over my dead body is the mantra chanted from Muswell Hill.

Given that he is MD of BDO Enterprises Ltd which reputedly part-funds the BDO and is the catalyst for much that goes on in the organisation he is potentially in a position to cause much grief for the new board. He has proved in the past how vindictive he can be with his persistent attempts to wreck the careers of the fourteen players that broke away in 1993.

This day of abdication has long been on the cards; dictators always come to a sticky end. However they often try to take as much down with them as they can and Olly once issued some chilling words along the lines of “When I go, the BDO goes”. Let’s hope this is just doom mongering speculation and Olly leaves graciously.

New board member, Martin Adams, is a player who splits opinion but he has put his head above the parapet and starts with a clean sheet in his new role. He should be given the time, along with the rest of the new board, to put the house in order and determine a workable strategy for taking the BDO forward.

This needs to incorporate securing backing & funding for existing tournaments, regaining television exposure, repolishing the tarnished image that the BDO has attracted over recent years, improving the women’s game, honing the inter-county structure, helping to strengthen grass roots and youth darts, building bridges with Barry Hearn and the PDC, ensuring the BDO is never allowed to stagnate again, and actually putting the interests of the players first.

Adams’ role in the last point will be crucial given the 3-time Lakeside champion is still very much a darts player.

In fact there is a potential conflict of interest with Adams a board member of the BDO and IDPA as well as being an active player. Few sports have their number one player so involved in the mechanics of the game.

The new board, and Adams in particular, might have some work to do to assure everybody else that there is no conflict of interest. Darts is a nervous and paranoid sport; a condition that has festered over years of Croft rule. It is one legacy that Olly truly has left us.

With the momentous changes at Sunday’s BDO AGM, darts once again stands at a crossroads. The newly elected board have a huge job on their hands trying to steady a ship that is taking on water. Let’s hope they get the backing and not the meddling that will enable them to take darts into a new epoch of prosperity and success.

Surely this is what Olly Croft and every other outgoing board member would wish to see?

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