U.S.A. - After years of steady decline, the electronic dart industry is in dire need of a jumpstart.
Many believe that part of the answer lies in finding a major sponsor. While no one is suggesting that a sponsor would cure all of the sport's ills, it would certainly go a long way toward helping darts return to a growth game category.
The sport's struggles are perhaps best exemplified by the recent decision of Merit Industries to exit the dart business, leaving Arachnid and Valley-NSM as the sole coin-operated dart machine suppliers.
How did it come to this?
By all accounts, a host of factors have contributed to the sport's demise. People are far more selective with their recreational time than they were just 10 years ago. Not many people are willing, for example, to commit themselves to league seasons that can last upwards of four to six months.
There has also been a growing awareness of drinking and driving laws. Considering that many dart leagues require competitors to travel relatively long distances to play at other locations, the DUI factor has hurt the tavern industry itself, thereby reducing the pool of potential league players.
Another factor is that people are far more health conscious today. The idea of spending four hours on a weeknight in a smoky, dimly lit bar is not as appealing as it once was.
Despite all of these obstacles, interest in the sport itself remains high. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, approximately 20.3 million Americans currently play darts. While the coin-op side of the business may be struggling, the 20.3 million figure clearly shows that the market is there for the taking. With that in mind, the million-dollar question for operators is how to transfer that interest to the coin-op sector.
Perhaps no one understands that frustration better than Rich Celenza, president of Kings Row (Orlando, FL), a full-line vending and music and games company that relies heavily on dart league participation.
In addition to his vending business, Celenza owns and operates USA Darts & Billiards, a retail store in downtown Orlando located across from the Orlando Magic Arena.
The store, which sells a variety of darts supplies to consumers, does phenomenal business, according to Celenza, who has been running dart leagues for more than 20 years.
"I practically know every dart league player in the city, but I'd say that 80 percent of the people that come into the store are complete strangers," he said. "There has to be a way to get these people to participate in leagues."
For the past few years, Celenza has been trying to track a major sponsor. Just recently, he was able to secure a modest commitment of $400 from Camel, holding a successful mini-tournament called the "Camel Classic," complete with fog machines and confetti blasters.
Although Celenza is one of the most successful dart league operators in the Orlando area, with as many as 15 boards in some locations, he has lost about a third of his teams over the past 10 years, from a high of 240 teams in 1992 to between 80 to 90 teams today.
All that is left, he explained, is the "diehards." Not one of those 90 teams, he pointed out, dropped out after the recently completed season. In the early 1990s, when more casual players participated, it was not uncommon for 25 teams to drop out during a given season.
"That is all well and good, but to really inject life into the business we need to tap into those casual players again," he said. "That's where sponsorship comes in."
By funneling sponsorship dollars into local leagues, Celenza believes, operators would have finally have the tools to entice those players back into the sport.
THE RIGHT SPONSOR
"I feel that if we had a major sponsor it would go a long way toward jumpstarting the business," he said. "With the exception of darts, every sport has a major sponsor. We need a bigger carrot to dangle in front of the players."
Although large-scale tournaments certainly provide incentive for league players, Celenza noted that they don't affect casual players.
"These dart companies keep spending all of this money on these big tournaments, but they're making a mistake because they are giving the same money to the same people over and over again and they're not hitting the mainstream," he said. "They have to find a way to funnel the money into the local leagues."
As Celenza sees it, there is no reason why darts can't attract sponsors. To back up his point, he points to pool, which boasts such major sponsors as Camel, Budweiser and Jack Daniels.
"Darts is kind of a blue-collar sport, and many view it as second-class, but the fact of the matter is that pool used to be viewed as the worst sport in the world, with all the dingy pool halls, and now it has gained respect," he said. "I really believe that the same thing can happen with darts. With sponsors on the local league level, darts could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds like a Ferrari. It's a sleeping giant."
In order to make sponsorship a reality, the sport as a whole needs to sell itself to sponsors, according to Glenn Remick, president of the American Darters Association, the Lake St. Louis, MO-based organization that runs both steel-tip and soft-tip leagues.
Like other dart organizations, Remick noted that the ADA has been trying to adjust to accommodate time-starved consumers.
"It's strange because there's almost as many people playing darts as there ever have been," he said. "It's the organized end of it that is suffering. People are not committing themselves to organized play, and when they do they're limiting that participation."
In an effort to reach casual players, the ADA rolled out a new program last year called the Express League. The new format is made up of three person teams instead of the usual four, and only requires players to play eight games per night instead of 12 or 14. In addition, the season only runs for eight weeks.
The new format has caught on, as it represents almost 15 percent of the ADA's business. More importantly, Remick indicated that the majority of those players are new to the sport.
Remick, who helped launch Merit's dart program in the 1980s, has been attempting to attract sponsorship dollars for years. To that end, he has had meetings with both Fox Sports and ESPN regarding the televising of the ADA's national championship. One executive told Remick that dart competitions would make compelling TV programming.
"I've met with the vice-presidents of programming of both networks, and they've indicated that they would have no problem televising dart competitions," he said. "The big problem is that in order for them to get it there they've got to sell it to advertisers."
In order for sponsors to get involved, he added, they need assurance that they can get a return on their investment.
In the case of the ADA, Remick could only vouch for its 10,000 members, each of whom is reachable through the organization's customized software program.
"That got their attention, but they made it clear that in order for it to appeal to advertisers we would have to reach upwards of 30,000 to 50,000 members," he said. "To ultimately succeed, we need to sell them on our sport, and on the fact that it's well organized and networked."
Although the combined membership numbers of the ADA (10,000), National Dart Association (58,000), and the American Darts Organization (50,000) appear to meet that criteria, Remick noted that the way the organizations are organized and managed is not conducive to attracting sponsorship dollars.
Each of the organizations, he explained, is set up differently. The ADA, which is profit-driven, features both soft-tip (78 percent) and steel-tip (22 percent) leagues, while the non-profit ADO, which plays steel-tip exclusively, is managed by unpaid volunteers. The AMOA-sponsored NDA, he added, is soft-tip only, and does not operate leagues directly.
Outside of a massive undertaking among the three organizations to share player information, Remick believes that the prospects for major sponsorship dollars is bleak.
Pool, which has risen above its once negative image, he added, has succeeded on the sponsorship front mainly due to the strength of the American Pool Players Association, which boasts 190,000 members.
"If we had half of that, and the networking capabilities, darts would be on television right now," he said. "But in order to get a sponsor in our sport you can't put a square peg into a round hole, it won't fit."
If just one of the organizations is able to break through, he added, the entire sport would benefit from the exposure.
"Increased membership brings television and with television comes sponsorship," he added. "Imagine a scenario where someone is throwing a dart for $100,000, it would be exciting."
Although the idea of watching people throw darts may not seem "compelling" at first glance, other sports not considered to be riveting have succeeded at capturing the public's attention.
"If you can do it with a little white ball going into a cup on a golf course, there's no reason you can't do it with darts, which is a lot faster," he said. "How predictable is bowling on the professional level? With darts, every time you throw a single dart you change the game."
One possibility of darts breaking through on television, according to Remick, is a tournament between the five branches of the military: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
Earlier this month, Remick was a guest speaker at a military conference in Chicago, where he promoted the tournament, which will be called the Military Cup Challenge.
"The idea is really picking up steam, and each branch is highly competitive," he said. "The winning team will represent the best dart players in U.S. military."
America's finest at play
Remick hopes to build on the tournament to create the Military American Dart League. If all goes well, he believes the ADA could double its membership base to 20,000 in as little as 18 months.
Despite the continued decline of organized darts, the NDA has been able to maintain a steady base of players. In fact, according to executive director Leslie Murphy, the NDA's sanctioned player base of 58,000 represents a five percent increase over 2000. Those numbers have Murphy believing that the sport is finally ready to make a comeback.
"I think we're at the level off-stage and that we're at the point where it will start to pick up again," she said. "We have seen a steady and increasing player base in our association."
The NDA, Murphy pointed out, has been able to sustain a steady base of 300 charter holders (operator members), while participation in the association's Team Dart championship has grown as well.
Despite the growth, Murphy indicated that the NDA is exploring sponsorship opportunities more actively than it has in the past.
the right stuff
"The key is finding the right sponsor, someone that really wants to develop an effective partnership with us rather than someone who just wants to make a six-month commitment," she said. "We're interested in working relationship that can bring benefits to operators. That's really the kind of situation we're looking for."
However, Murphy warns that the possibility of finding a sponsor is remote.
"I don't know that there's necessarily barriers to getting it done, it's just finding the right partnership," she explained. "You want it to benefit the operators and not conflict with any local arrangements they may have, because many of our operators have their own local sponsorships. You don't want to bring in something nationally that conflicts with something they are doing locally."
As Murphy readily admits, sponsorship shouldn't be viewed as a panacea for the sport.
"Sponsorship can only go so far," she said. "It takes effort and a commitment to leagues in general to truly succeed, and that will never change. If that commitment isn't there, leagues won't grow all by themselves. You can't just open the door, put a dart machine out and expect it to make money. That's not how it works."