Feature: Arrows of good fortune

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MEI goes behind the scenes at the Premier League of Darts in Exeter........

What do Exeter City Football Club and the noble game of darts have in common? Rachael Church–Sanders, editorial director of Major Events International, explains.... . Two great sporting passions in my life have caused much mirth over the years from friends, family and industry peers alike. Firstly, my devotion to Exeter City Football Club, and secondly, my love of the game of darts. However, I believe that the worm has now firmly turned in both cases. Regarding the former, despite near ruin caused by the hands of some very iffy directors and a subsequent five–year hiatus in non–league football from 2003 to 2008, Exeter City, which is now a financially–secure Supporters Trust–run club, has finally returned to its 'proper' home of English League One football (Division Three in old money; or even Division Two very briefly when the Premiership was first formed), following back–to–back promotions. The club was last in the third flight of football in 1993–94, which coincided with my postgraduate stint in the city and the beginning of my love of the team. Rights–issues aside, I will always look fondly on the days that I reported on Exeter City matches for University Radio Exeter from my bedroom window (that overlooked the away end of the club's ground–aka the 'real' St James' Park). Many years of following my red and white army to the homes of teams such as Accrington Stanley, Ebbsfleet and Forest Green Rovers will now be replaced by trips to Charlton, Southampton and Norwich next season among formerly lofty others (not that I ever had a problem with the likes of Forest Green Rovers however, even if it meant sharing one portaloo with 500 men. 'Proper' football and all that!) Two more back–to–back promotions and the Devon legends will be in the Premiership by 2011, in plenty of time to boost the Great Britain football team in the 2012 London Olympics thus yielding a gold medal for the talented Exeter City player my husband and I sponsor–Neil Saunders. Who has a first class degree from Bath University by the way. Times indeed are a changing. As for darts, why would a nice middle class 'girl' like me enjoy following a sport often heralded as a past–time of overweight gentlemen supping beer on a cigarette smoke–filled stage? For a start, those days are long gone, and anyone disbelieving me only needs to tune into the UK's Sky Sports for coverage of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC's) annual calendar of events to see. Smoky, dingy halls have been replaced with lavish sets and the sort of glitzy razamatazz that PDC chairman Barry Hearn previously brought to television coverage of boxing. Meanwhile, professional players tend to supplement their performances with a cool glass of Evian these days rather than a pint of Stella. With rival darts code, the BDO, also televising its own watered–down version of the sport on the BBC each year, darts has never been so popular. Sold–out venues remain the theme and the more recently established PDC Premier League of Darts goes from strength to strength and bigger venue to bigger venue each year. Combine the silly costumes that cricket fans wear to England matches with walk–on music Muhammad Ali would have been proud of, throw in a bunch of packed out venues such as the Reebok Arena and a few legends such as 14–times world darts champion Phil 'The Power' Taylor and Wayne 'Hawaii 501' Mardle and you've got a night out that is better than a Bachelor's/Hen's Party and New Year's Eve extravaganza rolled into one. I have waxed lyrical about why darts is a sport rather than a past–time in previous publications so won't go into that again here, other than to say that dart is definitely a sport because (a) it involves skill, not luck, (b) has its own governing body (some would claim two), (c) offers competitors grand slam–type titles with lucrative prizes and (d) attracts sponsorship like nobody's business. Although not quite a cricket, but definitely not a World Wrestling Entertainment, darts sits between the two genres like the cheeky cousin who acts up in class but can knuckle down to his homework when it suits him. Darts now even has players that are positively on the slender and bookish side. Ladies, I urge you to check out James Wade and Jelle Klaasen for purely aesthetic reasons. In order to find out why darts has managed to undergo such a radical transformation over recent years and to deduce what is involved in keeping the fans happy at a venue, I spoke to the PDC's event director, Dick Allix, a former musician and music tour manager. Basically, when it comes to the running of the PDC's events, the buck stops with Allix. "After many years looking after bands and developing their potential, I found that the requirements for darts are the same–it is all about maximising what the sport has to offer, " explained Allix who added that it is very important that darts does not become complacent now it is so popular. "We're all about putting on a show and it's important that we keep things fresh every year. Whether it is encouraging the players to showboat and keep their personalities larger than life, or ensuring that drinks are served at tables to avoid queues and spillages, it's our job to make sure that people are thoroughly entertained at a PDC event. "I joined Allix as he took a small break from preparing the Premier League of Darts' first ever visit to Exeter's 7, 500 capacity Westpoint Arena back in early April 2009. Allix doesn't take many breaks. Other than his annual holiday in August and a couple of weeks rest in September each year, Allix zooms around the world as part of the travelling circus that makes up the PDC production crew, which includes the Sky Sports television team as well. Crew buses, 7. 5 tonne transportation trucks, outside broadcast vans and a range of kit that wouldn't look out of place behind the scenes of a World Rally Championship race are all under Allix's strong stewardship. For a Premier League of Darts event televised on a Thursday evening in the UK (and globally on the web on a pay–per–view basis), Allix's schedule looks as follows:Arrive at the venue Tuesday night. Try and get in and start rigging then, if not, come back Wednesday morning. Rig all day Wednesday, with broadcasters setting up Wednesday morning too. Come back on the Thursday and set up the lighting between 11am and 2pm. Then rehearse. Doors open at 6pm on Thursday. Broadcast starts at 7pm and goes on until around 10pm. Derigging takes place straight afterwards and finishes around 3am on Friday. All kit then goes back to the PDC base until it is needed the following week and so on. Apart from a separate set of kit and vans in the US for the Las Vegas Classic, the PDC uses the same equipment throughout the year at all its events. The fact that the Westpoint Arena in Exeter needed temporary seating, threw an extra dimension of pre–planning and organisation into the mix. As I am someone who can't get through the door without consulting a checklist first, I couldn't help but ask Allix, how on earth does he manage to keep on top of everything? "You hope you've done your homework, " explained Allix. "If everything has been planned properly, then it should all go smoothly. Obviously you can't predict everything that might go wrong–such as flooding toilets or oil being spilt on the floor–but the main thing is to have steps in place to deal with emergencies. I have an excellent, hard working team with me who are marvellous as it is impossible to do everything myself. We train our staff very thoroughly and try keep the same core team members over the years which certainly helps. "When it comes to getting fans in and out of venues, Allix leaves that to the venues themselves "because arenas are past–masters at managing the general public. Smokers throw up their own set of logisitical challenges as you can imagine though. " Allix does however look after security for players, production crew and VIPs. In fact, it was through seeing and using the non–transferable PDC VIP security wrist bands in action over the years that inspired me to suggest the same method be implemented at the start of the 2008–09 season at Exeter City Football Club. The club was suffering from not being to control VIPs and hospitality guests in and out of St James' Park properly and finding that people were recycling tickets through windows and down stairwells (yes, the joys of lower league football). This often led to hospitality boxes becoming overcrowded, not enough refreshments being available for paying sponsors and loss of revenue for the club–not a great business model for a club that had just got back into the Football League at that time. Since Allix last year kindly passed on the details of the wrist bands that are used by the PDC, Exeter City has cut down on 'hospitality fraud' at the club by around 99%. Now the club just has to work on preventing people watching and reporting on games for free from their bedroom windows. So, readers, that's the PDC/Exeter City link explained. Turning back to the arrows, the PDC works closely with venues to help them maximise food and beverage sales, "although they don't always take our advice" according to Allix. He favours a company called Major Tom that specialises in back packs that are drinks dispensers. "This allows beer to be dispensed at tables in a safer manner and helps avoid both spillages and long queues at bars. "Talking of spilt beer, which let's face it, we have all cried over at some point, what is the worst thing to have gone wrong at a Premier League darts event back stage so far? "That's easy–it is something that happened at the Plymouth Pavilions last year, " revealed Allix. "The worst thing that can happen to a darts player is having any sort of air movement on stage when they are throwing their darts. Air conditioning is therefore banned in the playing area. However, many venues have C02 extractor fans that are set off automatically by large numbers of people literally just breathing. That's exactly what happened in Plymouth and we had a panic trying to shut it down before the event started. I literally have to hold a flame on stage to make sure it doesn't flicker before we can allow play at any venue. "Allix has to choose the venues for his events around 9–12 months in advance, and the success of the sport means the PDC's needs are becoming increasingly sophisticated. "As the sport has grown in popularity, then the venues we need to hire have also grown in size. But that means we are now competing with large music events and other sports events, so booking as far as possible in advance is key. The back stage area has also become more important. We need a player's lounge that is decent, and we bring our own furniture for it. We need a bigger press room than we used to need, make up rooms, a separate room for the models who escort the players onto the stage, a production office, a room for the VIPs and sponsors plus the space to feed everyone and so on. " Certainly, long gone are the days when I attended inaugural season Premier League of Darts events in Stoke and Norwich in 2005 and the players were warming up alongside their guests in the same small rooms! At the Westpoint Arena in Exeter, the VIPs were kept completely separate from the players–and even the event sponsors, meaning we could all concentrate on our respective tasks. Warming up in the case of the players, smoozing with key clients in the case of the sponsors and gratuitous darts celebrity–spotting in the case of the VIPs with former world champions Bob 'The Limestone Cowboy' Anderson and Keith 'Milky Bar Kid' Deller in attendance in the green room that night. (Anyone got a pen? )With the PDC's requirements expanding each year, what do the actual players now expect from a venue? Who better to ask than the aforementioned Phil 'The Power' Taylor, 14–times world darts champion and therefore England's greatest ever sportsman in terms of achievements. And that's a statement of fact, not just because he is a pal. "Everything runs like clockwork for the PDC events these days, " said Taylor. "A lot more goes on behind the scenes than people realise. Whether it is having the hotel booked that we stay in, or sorting out our dry cleaning and practice boards, certainly there is a greater air of professionalism in the organisation of the game which makes my job a lot easier. " What makes a venue great for him? "Lively venues with noisy crowds, as long as they don't call out at the wrong moments. " And what about bad? "When a venue has a stage that is soft and springy. After all, you don't want to be feeling car sick when you are lining up to take your next throw!"I have a feeling that with Allix in charge, that's a problem that would be easily sorted anyhow. Now where did I put that wrist band? ................ .

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