LONDON — By conventional measures, dart players are not the telegenic type. They mutter to themselves onstage. They wear flamboyant polyester polos. They cradle their handful of tiny spears and stare a lot at a fibrous board seven-feet, nine-and-a-quarter inches away.
But professional darts has catapulted itself from musty British pubs onto millions of television sets across Europe, an insurgency by a working-class sport that has turned the best of its mostly middle-aged players into stars.
The premier darting event, the William Hill World Championship, has grown into a three-week, $3-million-purse affair, replete with cheerleaders and thunderous walk-on music, and the sport’s promoters work tirelessly to ratchet up the show.
One area of emphasis in recent years has been to encourage the players to show some emotion for the TV cameras, celebrate some after a big turn or win.
Though mild by the standards of other professional sports, the yelps and fist pumps and prancing are setting up a clash with some traditionalists, to whom there is no greater sin than showing up your competitor.
The dispute is all part of a makeover of darts engineered by Barry Hearn, the silver-tongued chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, or P.D.C., and the mastermind behind the sport’s growth on TV.
Mr. Hearn said his message to players was unambiguous.
“I talk to players: ‘Do not be boring, remember the customer,’” he said. “The guy that’s watching on TV wants to know, are you happy when you walk on stage? If you look bored I’ve got no time for you. It’s not W.W.E., because it’s a real sport without any rehearsal. At the same time, these players are smart enough to know we’ve got to stand out.”
For years, professional dart associations have tried to shed the game’s links to the smoky pubs where it blossomed nearly a century ago. Beer has been banished from the stage. So have cigarettes. Players walk to their places through cheering throngs of fans as a handpicked song booms over the loudspeakers and the auditorium becomes bathed in cool, blue light.
At the World Championship, being held this month at the Alexandra Palace in north London, it can be difficult at times to reconcile the crowd’s costumed revelry with the intensity of the players slinging needles at tiny sections of dartboard. The effect was that of a 3,000-member fraternity party taking place in the same convention hall as a complicated tooth extraction.
With some players wearing earplugs now to block out the pandemonium, the notion of midmatch celebrations has proved contentious. In a sport as simple and rhythmic as darts, even a moment of mugging for the crowd can throw an opponent off.
Take, for example, a first-round match at the World Championship, played before fans dressed in all manner of full-body costumes: a Christmas tree, a giraffe, a duck and Woody from “Toy Story,” not to mention a heavy-drinking bunch of (make-believe) priests and nuns.
Vincent van der Voort, a veteran Dutch player known for his quick-fire style, was up against Lourence Ilagan, a wiry Filipino with a relatively thin résumé in major events. The two players took turns throwing from behind a line known as the oche (pronounced like “hockey” without the “h”), with each successful shot pulling them closer to the goal of dropping from 501 points to zero.
Mr. van der Voort was nonchalant on the stripe, though his face grew redder and sweatier as the match wore on. Mr. Ilagan, on the other hand, strode around the stage, pumping his fist and once pausing, theatrically, to make a mean face, point a forefinger in the air and then jab it toward the ground. Mr. van der Voort eventually prevailed, but his opponent’s showmanship proved a challenge.
“Once I was in a rhythm, I thought, ‘I’m going to smash you, really, I’m going to smash you all over,’” he said after the match. “And then he starts walking around and I couldn’t get my rhythm going and I thought, ‘Come on, get going, get going,’ and then all of a sudden I slowed down.”
A two-time world champion, Gary Anderson, was involved in an incident last month involving Gerwyn Price, a former rugby player with the physique of a refrigerator. Mr. Price, an intense sort, came chest to chest with the mild-mannered Mr. Anderson as he shrieked in triumph over a particularly good turn. The sport’s regulatory body is now considering disciplinary action.
(Over-celebrating, though, is hardly the only offense to have rocked the dart world lately. Mr. Anderson was accused last month of passing gas so pungent it threw his opponent off, an incident soon dubbed Fartgate. Mr. Anderson turned the blame back on his opponent, leaning on the “he who smelt, it dealt it” dictum, and now darting world insiders generally agree everyone should stop talking about the episode.)
In any event, the P.D.C., which operates the biggest tournaments, has begun reviewing whether it needs more referees and a system for docking points from players during a match.
The only problem is no one seems to know what qualifies as excessive celebration. Several ex-players said, confusingly, that what mattered was not the manner of celebration so much as whether a player had earned one. Mr. Hearn agreed.
“If you’ve done something that’s worth celebrating, that’s not a problem,” he said. “If you hit 26 with three darts and celebrate” — a paltry score, even for a rank amateur — “you’ll be in front of the disciplinary panel.”
Among the fan favorites is Peter Wright, a.k.a. Snakebite. He learned to play as a child in the 1980s in his family’s freezing cold garage in southeast London, and after climbing the local circuit eventually quit his job as a car mechanic and tire fitter to play professionally full-time. He earned $1,500 his first year, but now makes considerably more.
Some of that is surely because of his dedication to his Snakebite persona: For between two and four-and-a-half hours before matches, his wife works on turning his head into a canvas. To the left of his colored mohawk — “the T.V. camera side,” Mr. Wright called it — she paints a snake. On the other side she paints a design matching the flag of the country where he’s competing or his trouser pattern.
He said the P.D.C. should give players a long leash when it comes to onstage merrymaking. “Otherwise we’ll all go up doing the same thing, all robots, no celebration, and people won’t watch it anymore,” he said.
The boisterous crowd and big TV audience — 1.4 million people in Britain and 2.7 million people in Germany watched the last World Championship final — have not reversed the long-term decline of pub darts, at least in major cities. In October, the number of central London dart pubs dropped below 90 for the first time, said Justin Irwin, an amateur coach who keeps track of the grass-roots game.
Most of that has to do with rising rents that have forced dart pubs to become gastro pubs, said Patrick Chaplin, a darts enthusiast who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the sport’s history. Working-class players are also moving farther outside the city.
The popularity of darts, like professional golf with Tiger Woods, has tended to rise and fall with the caliber and charisma of the top player. The 1980s, another golden age for the sport, when the BBC and other stations broadcast big tournaments, were dominated by Eric Bristow. Back then, almost all of the fans in attendance were amateur players themselves, said Keith Deller, a former world champion.
Currently, the dart world is dominated by Michael van Gerwen, who many consider the best player ever, and who is known to play to the crowd. But even the traditionalists give Mr. Hearn credit as well.
“Barry Hearn is the man,” said Mr. van der Voort, “and if he likes it that everybody’s over-celebrating or whatever they do, then everybody’s going to do it.”