Following Fallon Sherrock’s two historic victories at the 2020 PDC World Darts Championship, Ollie Godden explains how darts still has a long way to go when it comes to encouraging women to play the game.
As Fallon Sherrock stepped up to the oche on 17 December 2019, she had three attempts at double 18 to make history. Cheers and whistles reverberated through TV screens as the fans at Alexandra Palace (or ‘Ally Pally’) rose in tandem.
The first dart nestled outside the wire, enough to hush the rapturous crowd into tense silence. The second pierced the centre of the red sisal fibre and sent the crowd – and social media – into overdrive.
In overcoming Ted Evetts, Sherrock became the first woman to beat a man at the Professional Darts Corportion (PDC) World Darts Championship since it began in 1994.
Evetts was gracious in defeat while Sherrock, after taking a few moments to compose herself, showed wisdom beyond her years: “I feel really happy. I’ve made something for women’s darts. I have proved we can play men and beat them. Fingers crossed that puts us in the right direction.”
The win sent a shockwave through the sport and sparked a media frenzy, with people from all corners of the sporting spectrum hailing a performance of such magnitude.
It had been a case of when, not if, this landmark moment would happen but that didn’t mean it had any less magnitude.
Then came Sherrock’s second round victory over world number 11 Mensur Suljovic, proving the previous performance was no fluke. A plethora of leg-deciding darts were thrown with coolness. The Austrian became just another victim in Sherrock’s path to relative stardom.
She was already fairly well known in darts circles but these two wins have thrust the 25-year-old into the national spotlight.
She will go onto face world number 22 Chris Dobey on 27 December with nothing to lose, a multitude of new fans in her corner and history already made.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) December 18, 2019
Women’s Darts – The Journey
The PDC World Championship has always allowed women to compete in its 26-year history, with Canadian Gayl King the first to do so when the event was held at Essex’s Circus Tavern in 2001. She lost in the first round.
The same year the British Darts Organisation (BDO) launched their Women’s Championship which allowed them to compete for a prize pool of £6,000 – a figure which has now risen to £25,000. The winner of the men’s championship pockets £100,000.
Between King’s appearance and last year’s tournament, no female player appeared in the major draw of the PDC World Championship. Russian Anastasia Dobromyslova was handed a wildcard entry in 2009 but lost in the preliminary round.
There we no technical barriers preventing women from entering but a lack of equitable prize funds and limited provisions meant growth in the women’s game was stunted.
Despite Trina Gulliver’s 10 BDO Women’s Championship victories she was, and is, a relative unknown in the sporting world. The PDC did attempt to respond to the lack of female exposure by creating a Women’s World Championship in 2010 but this was discontinued after one running.
Things changed in 2018 when PDC Chairman Barry Hearn stated that the organisation would expand the World Championship competition from 72 to 96 players and guarantee two places for women.
This was an important move.
Two qualification tournaments were run to determine the athletes, with Dobromyslova and four-time BDO Women’s World Champion Lisa Ashton the two who won their events to reach one of the sport’s biggest stages.
This year Sherrock, who has had to also overcome the adversity of kidney disease following the birth of her son in 2014, was joined by fellow qualifier Mikuru Suzuki of Japan. She almost made her own piece of history, taking Englishman James Richardson to a deciding leg before losing 3-2 in the first round.
Following her first victory, Sherrock suggested that more places should be guaranteed for female participants. However Hearn’s response was that a pathway is now visible and said it is up to the female players to create more opportunities by proving their worth.
The bulls-eye to win it just caps this incredible moment off…
Iconic from Fallon Sherrock, a sporting history maker 🎯pic.twitter.com/5hPWx3wbNU
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) December 22, 2019
Still a way to go
It is important that Sherrock’s win doesn’t mask the progress that still needs to happen in darts. She has taken her opportunity with aplomb but things aren’t all rosy in the women’s game.
Whilst the prize pots remain small and competitions at a premium, they will remain semi-professional and this is an inherent barrier to growth.
Moreover, there is still a shift required in the cultural position of women’s darts. In an online Q&A in 2018, Michael van Gerwen – a three-time PDC World Champion – said: “You can’t compare woman darts and men’s, [I] don’t have a reason for it but [it] just doesn’t happen for some reason.”
The word number one wasn’t wrong for saying so. It was, and is, correct that few comparisons have been drawn but with little justification.
Two-time PDC Grand Slam of Darts champion Gerwyn Price joined the debate on Sherrock’s successes after his own first round victory this year, stating: “She hasn’t beaten a man, she has beaten a young boy with the crowd on his back.”
This was a startlingly regressive comment from a leading light in the sport.
Price himself beat Suzuki on his way to a second Grand Slam title a year ago but maintains the crowd impairs a player’s ability to perform to their potential and cited this as the reason for Evetts’ loss.
The comment from Price was not only patronising to Evetts, a young player with a very bright future, but undermined the success of Sherrock, who scored six 180s and nineteen 140s.
Similarly, Sherrock appeared on Good Morning Britain the day after she beat Evetts for an interview with the infamous host Piers Morgan. In a hugely trivialising stunt, Sherrock was tasked with beating Morgan in a three-dart challenge. As he swaggered over to the board, Sherrock looked understandably bemused before comfortably beating the presenter as he joked it was up to him to ‘restore pride in male darts playing’.
After her subsequent victory against Suljovic, Morgan stated that she was his ‘female empowerment role model’, but until such a point that we can take an achievement at face value without feeling the need to turn it into a gimmick, we are failing to truly celebrate the sport and those within it.
“I have just proved that women can beat anyone. I have beaten two of the best players in the world. If that doesn’t show that women can play darts, I don’t know what does…”
Fallon Sherrock missed just five darts at double against World 11 seed Mensur Suljovic.
What a legend🙌 pic.twitter.com/G3MdCN9uC4
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) December 22, 2019
To continue the growth, fans must ensure that their appetite for the women’s game remains or even broadens, whilst organisers must reward women appropriately and broadcasters have a duty to televise events.
We can see the potential for development with the Women’s Super League in football this year, where exposure and sponsorship has contributed to a boom in the game. The same must occur here and there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
A quarter-final berth is not beyond the realm of possibilities by any means for Sherrock but, regardless of where she finishes in this year’s competition, the point has been made.
Women have a place in the upper echelons of the sport but they must first be given a chance. The onus is now on Hearn and his team to ensure the strategic progression of the sport which will, in time, effect the cultural beliefs about females in the sport.