Darts is a regular fixture on our TV screens and one of those who anchors the arraz coverage is Jacqui Oatley. The presenter of ITV’s PDC events, which includes action from majors such as the UK Open and European Championship as well as the World Series of Darts, she is a familiar face on our screens and was in the hot-seat for this edition of ‘Darts Fans’. And, although she only began covering the sport 4 years ago, her tungsten memories go back much further.
“My early experiences were probably like a lot of people. In my next-door neighbour’s top room, they had a play room which had a dartboard in it and, when we were kids, we always used to be over there. And they were proper darts and a proper dartboard – I’m not sure if they’d allow that now with health and safety! In terms of television, darts was so mainstream. Eric Bristow was the big name when I was growing up and obviously you had Bullseye so you had the darts players on there. I don’t have any strong memories of World Championships but just really the big darts players being in our front room, the likes of Alan Warriner-Little, who I work with now (!), as well as Keith Deller and Jocky Wilson. And, obviously, there was only terrestrial television back then so it was a really common sport that we saw on TV.”
As I have already mentioned, Jacqui’s involvement in the sport began 4 years ago when she took up the role of ITV’s darts anchor, working alongside pundits Alan Warriner-Little and Chris Mason as well as the commentators John Rawling and Stuart Pyke and roving reporter Ned Boulting. “I absolutely love it! It came completely out of the blue,” Jacqui told me of the origins of her position.
“I got a phone call one day from my boss at ITV who wanted to arrange a meeting initially and I had no idea what it was about. I had no agent so I had no inkling and I hadn’t been asking for any work but eventually, over the phone, he offered me a 3-year contract to cover international football and darts and it was a big surprise! But a very welcome phone call and I was absolutely chuffed to bits. We have a great team at ITV and get on very well and it is a really fun thing to do partly because the atmosphere at the events is just brilliant! I tell all my friends that if they can get down to the darts they should, whatever tournament it is, because it is proper ‘let your hair down’ fun. And, too, the quality of darts is amazing and the standard is phenomenal, and the level that these lads are at, even as seen in the World Youth final, is just amazing really. I especially love the atmosphere at Minehead – I love the places to have a bit of character and where we stay is great even if it is an unusual part of the world you wouldn’t go to otherwise. I love the nature of the event and if darts fans haven’t tried it already, I really think they should – get your mates together and let your hair down.”
And Jacqui has a lot of fond memories from her time on the road at events over the last few years, “I love a bit of atmosphere. For example, at Minehead, you have got 5,000 people in there and when they all peak on a Sunday night, it is quite something! I think my favourite moment was probably the 2018 Players Championship Finals final, when Daryl Gurney beat MvG 11-9 on the bullseye. Maybe this was just in my mind but I really didn’t see Daryl winning that one as I had become so used to seeing MVG churning out the wins (including that incredible streak on ITV when he didn’t lose for several years in live tournaments!). I think the way Daryl won it and celebrated has to be one of my favourite moments. And Nathan Aspinall winning the UK Open earlier this year.”
Jacqui agreed, however, that Michael van Gerwen’s grip on world darts isn’t as comfortable as it was a few years ago, “Yeah, it has changed since! When he is flying and sometimes averaging in the 120s mid-game and you are thinking, ‘What is going on here?!’, you want to see that and want to see the very best playing at the highest levels but equally you want the others to come to that standard and cause the odd upset to make sure it is not too much of a foregone conclusion. But I think the new lads coming through now are really exciting. And psychologically, I won’t name him but speaking to one of the managers of one of the players it is clear that this certain player knows he is beaten before he even plays him, especially on the big stage, and you think ‘Come on, you know you have got the talent to beat him.’”
“But darts is such a mentality game and I ask the pundits a lot about the psychology side of the game and it is something that interests me generally in sport but particularly in darts. It is surprising that coaching and sports psychology is not used more. It is such a mental sport and because there is so much money in the sport you would think the players would do what it takes to use those fine margins in their favour and I think that is something that will come into the game and, with the likes of Nathan Aspinall coming into the game and realising that staying cleaner and practicing and focusing more helps, people will realise that the rewards are there.”
Alongside her work for ITV on darts, Jacqui is a highly-regarded football broadcaster, becoming the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day coverage back in 2007 and working across the channels covering the beautiful game. She is also a big advocate for women’s sport and extending opportunities for women, whether that be on a football pitch or in a commentary booth or TV studio. And she shared her thoughts and equality issues within darts, “I think the issues in football and darts regarding gender equality are quite similar in the sense that the history, tradition and culture of darts, like football, has been predominantly male and I think that is the reason why men dominate darts now as a result of that culture and tradition. For example, the idea of men playing each other in the pub – even if you had women playing too it may not have translated to anything career wise for various reasons, including financial ones. Whereas now, it is good that the PDC are starting to address that, especially with the World Championship women’s qualifiers, which although some people may be against as they will say the women can qualify anyway, shows they are addressing the fact that women don’t go for these things and put themselves forward, as a result of these traditions, and I think now if you are a talented, young female darts player, the world is your oyster.”
“There is no way in the world that Barry Hearn doesn’t want the next Katie Taylor-equivalent in darts – he would love nothing more than to have someone who is able to compete and average into the 100s on a consistent basis and knock some of the men off their perch (and we would all be watching it!). Because I think that it is one of the few events that you can compete on an equal footing and it is a bit different to, say, eventing, where one of you has a go and then the next one and so on, as you are against each other without it being a physical battle. I do think that darts, however, is well behind football in terms of getting into the modern world and social views and perceptions of women, definitely a more traditional sport, and women in football over the years have helped to set a few parameters. But I do think it is doing really well and will evolve to be a bit more professional in the future, in terms of the players’ attitudes to their lifestyles and regimes, in their interests.”
“I don’t know if there is any plans to set up a ‘Women in Darts’ (!) but I would love to see more women believe in themselves, especially when they are showing this talent from an early age alongside the men, and think that they can spread their wings and fly at the same level that the men do, and get themselves down to Barnsley and Wigan and compete against the men on a regular basis and progress their careers, as although it can be a cultural issue, it can be a self-belief issue and if they don’t see other women doing it, they tend not to do it themselves. So I think that it often just requires someone to break the mold and seeing more women in events like the PDC Worlds is a step forward and it will continue to grow. And I think we all need role models in life – I grew up not thinking about going into sports journalism because I didn’t see any women doing it and didn’t consider doing it, even though I adored sports with a passion and loved language, writing and speaking, nobody or myself ever put 2 and 2 together. So if you are a little girl growing up now thinking I love darts and am really good at darts and want to practice a few hours every day and make a career of it, then I think there is literally nothing stopping you and I think that is very exciting.”
“When I have spoken to female darts players before, the big issue has been prize money and not being able to make a living out of it. So I think any changes that will help women to make a career out of it and be able to practice as much they need to will help but the more the PDC gets involved in women’s darts the more opportunities there’ll be for them and the more they’ll be welcomed. But maybe not by the other players having talked to some of them! But is an entertainment sport and people still talk about Van der Voort-Dobromyslova and they will never let him forget!”
Jacqui spends a lot of her time in football stadiums and darts arenas and thus is well used to the lively and vibrant atmospheres associated with both. But Jacqui finds the similarities between the two to really start and end there, “I don’t think there are too many comparisons. A lot of the songs in darts come from football but I don’t think it is quite as tribal – the only tribalism comes between the stands and the tables! It is not as if there are MvG shirts in one corner and Barney shirts in the other either! I think it is a lot more laid back and chilled out and, ultimately, a lot more fun, full of people wanting to let their hair down after a long week at work. So I think it is a lot more fun and there is much less of the nastiness.”
Oatley is part of an ITV team which includes two ex-pros well known to darts fans. Former BDO World Championship semi-finalist Chris Mason and former World Grand Prix champion Alan Warriner-Little are both pundits on the channel, but Jacqui told me they hadn’t offered her any playing advice yet, “Ha! Not so much, because when we tend to do a darts tournament, I am often tucked in bed as soon as I can be, not because I am a giant square but because I want to be able to do my job properly the next day! But I do have a Unicorn Smartboard which is brilliant because my maths skills are not the best so that is completely cheating but I love it! And my kids have got a magnetic dartboard which they love and that is really fun – all they want to do is hit the bullseye and then they think they’ve made it. I think getting into it from an early age is really good too. I do try to also get down to events in my free time because that is when I can really enjoy it. I am hoping to get down to Wolverhampton which is only about five minutes from my mum’s house so we are hoping to have an ITV meet-up there and have a night out when we are not actually working and just enioy it.”
And we will be seeing the broadcaster and the rest of the ITV team on our television screens very soon, with a bumper few weeks of events coming up, “It is a really busy period coming up for ITV darts. We are heading out to Gottingen towards the end of October which is interesting – it sounds quite tricky to get to but it is going to be a bit of an adventure as we are all going to meet up and travel together. And then also Amsterdam for the World Series Finals – I have travelled through but never stayed there so that should be fun. And I think the atmosphere will be amazing – I am very pleased they have changed the venue. And then the Players Championship Finals in Minehead as I have mentioned earlier, before Milton Keynes in January, which is one of my favourites, as it is a great venue and setup, right in the middle of the country and is very sociable with the hotel right there. I love the whole crew with ITV too, so I am really looking forward to meeting up with them and we all get along really well. I am also doing a few freelance shifts for Sky on some news sports bulletins and sports news. I was on there for 5 hours recently and have also got up at 2.30am on a Friday a few weeks ago to do an early shift! It is really enjoyable and something different and I have met quite a few new people. I love working in sport and was on air when Europe won the Solheim Cup – I have done that kind of thing on radio but never on TV before so it is good fun to transfer that to TV,” Jacqui said of some of her present ventures.
And, finally, as is customary, I asked Jacqui what her darting predictions and crystal ball inklings were for the future of the sport, and she had some interesting ideas, “I have loads! I think mixed darts will become more common – when women who grow up realising they’ve got a talent and that there is actually quite a lot of money that can be won if they put their mind to it and focus on it, that will be quite a big thing. I think socially the sport will change too and hopefully more bars will get dartboards, like Flight Club in London, and that kind of thing will become more popular. But definitely, as I have mentioned, attitudes to sports psychology and lifestyle will change, and I know that some people can get frustrated at the slow pace of change and that they think players should be looking after themselves a lot better and are getting their preparation wrong. And also hopefully managers will maybe encourage their players to look after themselves physically and mentally a lot better just so that they can be the best they can be and make more money and be more professional. And I do think that there will be more darts coaching and sports psychology – I think maybe there is pride at stake and that some of the older players maybe don’t want to admit to being coached by somebody that wasn’t a world number one or Grand Slam winner etc. so maybe there is a bit of pride involved. I think once they look at the prize money and have a go at it they will realise that the rewards are there and that it could make a difference to them many will take it up and both will play a much bigger part in the game.”
Thanks to Jacqui Oatley
Image Credits: 90min.com, mirror.co.uk and Josh’s Dartistry