Darts Fans: Chris Hammer

In the ‘Darts Fans’ hot-seat this time is Chris Hammer, a sports writer for ‘Sporting Life’. He began by discussing the roots of his interest in darts. “I first got into darts during the 1995 BDO World Championship when Raymond van Barneveld captured my imagination on his way to the final. I was gutted he lost the final to Richie Burnett but from then on I was hooked on the game. I didn’t have Sky growing up so for me the Lakeside was the pinnacle, with Barney, Steve Beaton, Ted Hankey, Bobby George and Martin Adams being among my first heroes – but I also loved mimicking all the various throwing actions and styles of many others. In those days it certainly didn’t feel like an inferior tournament to the PDC version overall, although my friends at school who had Sky would continually tell me how good Phil Taylor was and how much I was missing out!”

And the beginning of Chris’ journalism career wasn’t too much later, either, “As for sports journalism, I realised during my first degree – which was Sports Development – that I much preferred writing about all kinds of sport than potentially organising the running of events, so after I finished it, I decided to do a one-year Post Graduate Diploma in Newspaper Journalism at Preston University. That was in 2004-05 and straight after that I got a job for Sporting Life. At the time, I had no doubts this was the right career choice for me, but considering how different the industry is now – almost unrecognisable in some respects – I’m not sure if a 22-year-old Chris Hammer would feel the same today! Not that I don’t still enjoy it, but in the past it felt like the primary motivation for journalists was about uncovering stories about sports stars and unsung heroes and bring them to life with words. Personally I think that’s changed but maybe that’s another story for another day!”

Chris continued to tell me a little bit about his early viewing and playing memories, “My earliest viewing memories (not including archive footage I’ve watched in later life of course) were the latter stages of the 1995 World Championship, with Raymond van Barneveld beating Martin Adams 5-4 in the semi-finals and Andy Fordham losing to Richie Burnett at the same stage. I really wanted Fordham to win so I remember being particularly annoyed that Burnett went on to lift the title as well! One of my standout favourite memories came a year later when my new hero Steve Beaton overcame Burnett in the final, although possibly the most torn I’ve ever been was when the Adonis played Barney in the 1998 quarters. Back then, the BBC didn’t show live evening sessions so I followed the match on Ceefax score updates, and couldn’t believe it when Barney went 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 and then 4-0 up before winning 5-0. I assumed it was an massacre but when the highlights came on at about midnight, I watched in awe as both players produced stunning performances in the ‘closest’ whitewash you’ll ever see!”

“As for playing – my earliest memory is having a dart board in my bedroom playing against my mate Sam who was a big Martin Adams fan. I was winning a match when he decided to throw one of his darts at my heel when I was retrieving mine from the board. I was in bare feet at the time so you can imagine the scenes!”

Chris covers darts for Sporting Life

And talking of throwing tungsten, Chris gave a fair assessment of his playing skills, “Frustratingly nowhere near as good as I’d like to be. I’m left-handed but right-eye dominant which has caused me to experiment so much in terms of my position on the oche, head position, where I should bring my throwing arm back to etc. I still haven’t settled on the right combination and I’ve confused myself with all the tinkering. In short, I think I need an expert pair of eyes to put me on track. I have once played on a stage in front of around 500 people at Elland Road during a glitzy charity tournament, which featured plenty of decent Super League players. It was great having walk-on music and proper introductions and despite the nerves, I won my first match 2-0 by hitting tops in both legs at the first attempt. I didn’t celebrate because I was in shock and also felt bad for my opponent – which is a fundamental reason why I couldn’t make it as a sportsman! The next match I came up against a very strong Super League player who beat me 2-0 and celebrated like he’d won the who competition, which I took as a compliment!”

As mentioned early, Chris is on the writing team for Sporting Life. He told me a little about how this came about, and covering darts for the website. “As I said earlier, Sporting Life was actually the first job I got straight after I finished my Post Grad Diploma in Newspaper Journalism back in 2005. During my early years there I didn’t really write about darts because the website only covered it for the PDC and BDO World Championship and even then, it wasn’t in any great depth. My main areas of focus were the ‘major’ sports such as football, cricket, tennis and also athletics, while at that stage in my career I didn’t have any clout to say we needed a darts section and there was not enough traffic to suggest it would be worthwhile anyway!”

“I think opinions about the virtues of darts coverage in the written/online media started to change after the 2007 final between Phil Taylor and Barney when there was an upsurge in traffic but it would take several years more before I got Sporting Life to take it seriously by launching a permanent darts section. It’s hard to remember exactly, but from 2012 onwards is roughly when the momentum started to build and we’ve been covering it extensively ever since. I write previews for the televised tournaments and have also interviewed many players for articles and features, while it’s mainly me who does all the reports on all the PDC events throughout the year. As you can imagine this is quite intense considering I obviously still contribute to other areas of the website and the running of our social media accounts!”

“In terms of perception and coverage of darts in the media, there’s no doubt it has got a lot more respect than it used to, say, 10 years ago and in the generations before that, but the broadsheet newspapers and their respective websites still prioritise the traditionally popular sports. I think they’re missing a trick, however. We get a lot of traffic for our darts content, particularly around the big events, and the sport has a much wider appeal across many demographics than ever. ITV4 do a great job in bringing darts to a terrestrial audience but I’m convinced they’d see amazing viewing figures if they put the final evening session of their big majors – such as the UK Open – on ITV. I’d have thought the BBC would try to show more events in the wake of the figures they get for the Champions League of Darts – despite the fact they bury that on BBC Two or behind the red button – but considering the way they don’t make the most of their snooker rights, it doesn’t really surprise me. Ronnie O’Sullivan was the only sportsman anyone was talking about and pulled in over 2 million viewers on Two – just imagine what they would have got if the final was on One? Ultimately, coverage decisions by broadcasters and mainstream newspapers/websites are driven by their numbers and until they take more of a chance on darts they’ll never realise its full potential.”

It isn’t always easy to keep your composure and neutrality when trying to write about the sport’s highs and lows, and I asked Chris how he has found covering the sport in those high stakes situations, “When it comes to the big televised tournaments, I tend to live blog the final session and then write a separate report quickly afterwards. Therefore, as you can imagine, those dramatic matches that go to a deciding leg or set, with multiple missed title darts can cause me a lot of stress! That said, I wouldn’t put myself through it if I didn’t enjoy it in some strange way!”

“The most rewarding was when Nathan Aspinall won the UK Open because not only was his story particularly incredible, but I’d also written a betting preview tipping him at 125/1. I was very nervous about that but didn’t allow myself to think it would happen until he hit that stunning match-winning 170 checkout! Another highly intense evening was ‘that’ 2018 Grand Slam of Darts final, where I’d got myself prepared for Gary Anderson winning the title for the first time and all the fanfare that would go with it. However, not only does he lose, but the controversial bad-tempered manner of Gerwyn Price’s victory made it arguably my most challenging – yet fascinating – test to get all the angles and talking points covered. Not only do you have to report and react to what’s happened, but you’ve also got to think quickly about how best to get the story to engage on social media and get followers interacting. That night really did have it all and I’m sure I was still working in the early hours!”

“As well as this kind of reporting, I also attend some of the big events to film interviews with the players after their matches. At the 2018 World Matchplay in Blackpool, I was interviewing Jeffrey de Zwaan following his victory over Dave Chisnall but during one of the early questions there was a huge boom of noise and it felt like the Winter Gardens was shaking. Gary Anderson had hit a nine-darter against Joe Cullen and I’d missed it. Unbelievable. Thankfully after the interview ended, I was able to get out into the arena and witness the second half of a breath-taking match and also had the privilege of asking him about his perfect leg later on that night.”

Raymond van Barneveld in action against Richie Burnett, in the 1995 BDO World Championship final

The last few months have been tough for sport, including darts, and only now are we beginning to see the return of competitive action in many disciplines. And Chris only has praise for the work of the PDC in this time, “I think the PDC deserve a huge amount of credit for the way in which they’ve managed to stage some tournaments – from the Home Tour and the Summer Series to the World Matchplay. Personally, I struggled with the whole online darts scene after about a month of it but that’s not to say I didn’t think it was extremely commendable and everyone involved did a fantastic job. You have to adapt in these unprecedented times and that’s exactly what darts has done. Considering it’s one of the sports you’d think needs a crowd more than most, the way the PDC and Sky Sports staged the World Matchplay was fantastic in the circumstances and it didn’t feel anywhere near as sterile as first feared. However, I’m not allowing myself to get excited about future tournaments this year because the way the world is at the moment, there’s just no guarantees about what will get staged and whether they’ll be fans involved. My guess is no more accurate than anyone else’s and for all I know, we might not see a proper atmosphere until next year.”

On top of that, Chris also talked about some of the darting treats he is looking forward to, “If this was a normal year, I’d say the World Championship because nothing beats going to the Ally Pally, experiencing that incredible atmosphere and getting to interview the players, commentators and pundits around the venue. I prefer the pre-Christmas days when the matches come thick and fast, and you get to hear the stories of the lesser known players who are earning life-changing amounts of money and living the dream. As the tournament dwindles in participants, the intensity increases but it all becomes about the performances and rivalries of the stars we already know so much about. That’s still exciting, but I just prefer the build-up towards those stages. As far as this year goes, I’m just looking forward to the time we have a tournament with a crowd to cover! I would love to get to a standard where I could average above 80. I would obviously say above 90 but you have to be realistic. If I won the lottery I’d try and practice eight hours a day and see what happens!”

And finally, as I always ask ‘Darts Fans’ guests to, Chris gave his prediction for the future of the sport, and it involved a few players he thinks will be on the up, “Michael Smith, Krzysztof Ratajski and Chris Dobey all to win a maiden TV major before the end of next season. I’d expect Bully Boy to do it this year at some point and I really felt he was going to do it at the World Matchplay until Gary Anderson denied him with a late blitz in the semi-finals. Ratajski again looked fantastic as he continues to grow in confidence on the stage environment, while Dobey is a player who is on the cusp of making a big breakthrough. One of my favourite interviews I’ve done during lockdown was talking to Chris about his father Gordon and he revealed how he’s planning to pay him through Q School next year. That would be a wonderful storyline to see unfold so I’ll happily predict that two Dobeys will be on the PDC Tour in 2021!”

Image Credits: Chris’ Twitter and AD.nl

Thanks to Chris Hammer

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