Darts is increasingly looking outwards and expanding across new parts of the globe, and North America is no exception. It has a long-running yet complicated relationship with the sport and has had its fair few high profile names, such as three-times world champion John Part and inaugural World Matchplay winner Larry Butler. But the pursuit for a more natural and consistent conveyor belt of talent from the pubs, clubs and local tournaments of the USA and Canada into the PDC Pro Tour has proven a challenge. It is laden with obvious geographical and cultural roadblocks, as well as organisational issues. But one man is trying to change that picture. Peter Citera is the Chief Executive Officer of the Championship Darts Corporation, and has been working hard to help the next generation of North American throwers achieve their goals.
“My professional background is in finance and education, with a focus on regulatory compliance,” Peter told me about his origins and life outside of the sport. “I’ve been involved in the residential mortgage field for 20 years and my current full-time job outside of darts (my second full-time job!) is teaching finance professionals, real estate agents and attorneys and speaking at the occasional conference. In addition, I still maintain a small referral-only mortgage loan business, which keeps me sharp in the classroom and on the podium.”
Like so many, Peter’s introduction to the sport was a largely accidental one, and once he caught the buzz, there was no stopping him. “I picked up my first dart 23 years ago in a blind draw at my favourite post-college pub in Chicago. They needed one more player to make it even, asked me to play, and I proceeded to go and stink up the place, but I immediately fell in love with the game. This led to me playing in many leagues and eventually starting to travel to tournaments as I improved.
“While my passion for the game grew, I quickly learned my talent level just can’t compete with the best so I went the event organiser and promotion route. I served on the Board of Directors of Windy City Darters for 18 years, as President of the league for six and as Tournament Director for many Windy City Open and Windy City Cup events. Through this, I met Jay Tomlinson – my mentor in the professional side of the game – who introduced me to the world of the PDC. I’ve been involved with North American PDC events since my first Windy City Open as a staff member in 2001 and haven’t missed a PDC-affiliated event on this continent since 2005.”
Citera has been instrumental, alongside Anthony Eugenia, David Irete and others, in establishing and leading the Championship Darts Corporation (CDC), an organisation which is an important piece in the global jigsaw of world darts. It offers a link-up between the North American circuit and PDC darts, and helps contribute players to the World Championship and cooperate on other events. Peter outlined its remit, “Our mission is, as outlined on our website, ‘to provide unparalleled opportunities for top darts players of all ages to compete against each other regularly; to enable developing talent to realise their full potential by competing with the best; to identify the next generation of top-quality North American darters; to bring darts into mainstream consciousness on this continent by creating a fan-base outside of current darts enthusiasts and to provide the best players at all levels with opportunities to compete internationally that cannot be found anywhere else on the continent.’ We provide a direct link to the world’s most prestigious tournaments for players of all ages, from youth to adult. As the official partner of both the JDC and the PDC, we open doors that nobody else can in our market.
“A lot of the challenge at the beginning was to get the player base in the US to accept that a professional-style tour was actually possible and worthy of support. We had to convince the top players to take a chance and get behind us at the beginning because, without them, we wouldn’t have been able to survive. We needed legitimacy and we needed it fast; having players like Larry Butler, John Part, Darin Young, Chris White, Gary Mawson, David Fatum and a host of others at the first event in Ohio in 2015 was huge for us. Thankfully we didn’t bollox it all up and they came back for more events. We knew we needed to get the darts part right first before we could expand the Tour, introduce streaming, etc. I credit Anthony’s darts mind and David’s passion for getting us through what could have been a very rocky process at the beginning.”
Peter continued, “Today, we have that same need for legitimacy in Canada. It’s taken us a while to find our sea legs there, and we’re still behind where we want to be in terms of numbers. 2020 was supposed to be the year where we really fully committed to having a slate of events (rather than just one weekend) in that country. Like everything else, that got put on hold with COVID but we’re still fully committed to being in Canada. The Canadian darts community needs to see that from us to really turn out in the numbers we need, I think. Having players like Jim Long, Ross Snook, Shawn Brenneman, Dan Olson, Kiley Edmunds and the aforementioned John Part behind us is critical but we still have a lot of work to do.
“Seeing Matt Campbell on the global stage again this year will hopefully help to earn more Canadian trust that the four Americans that started this thing really do view them as partners and not an afterthought. Candidly, navigating this expansion while still keeping the US player base and our partners at the PDC happy keeps me up at night. Additionally, we simply have to find sponsors outside of the darts community to grow revenues to bring on staff – that is my single biggest stress point. Right now, nobody in this organisation works full-time for it and we need to figure out a way to make that happen especially to further our marketing efforts. We’re approaching the limits of what four unpaid Principals and an amazing and passionate volunteer staff can do. Our current sponsors are amazing – without Magic Darts, Cosmo Darts, Shot Darts and Dart Brokers we would have been out of business three years ago. However, burnout is a very real threat when people are working full-time to support their families outside of darts and then have to come home and essentially work another unpaid full-time job to make this thing continue.”
The unique cultural distinctions of North American society, in comparison to the UK and much of Europe where the sport has maintained support for a long time, has made the battle of creating opportunities in the continent hard. It has often been suggested, for example, that the popularity of soft-tip and cricket as disciplines has served to undermine the growth of the professional 501 game. I questioned Citera on this. “Quite honestly, I think soft-tip popularity is a good thing for us! The soft and steel games are certainly not the same, but by and large getting new players in front of a dartboard in North America – any dartboard – is exposure that we need to grow the grassroots. The concept that soft and steel are, and need to be, at war with each other is obsolete. Just look at what Steve Brown and Darren Barson at the JDC are doing incorporating soft-tip into JDC Virtual. Look at the success that the PDC Asian Tour has had in bringing some of the top soft players there into the steel game. Outside of some dinosaur purists in both games that insist on belittling the one they don’t play, darts is darts.
“On the topic of cricket, I get asked versions of this question often. Again, darts is darts. Players still have to hit what they’re aiming at consistently to be good no matter what game they’re playing. I don’t think cricket is holding the game back here. That may have been true 10 years ago, but there’s been a big push for more 501 across the continent recently. Much of that has come from long-format singles leagues and regional tours like the Dart Players United States family which started with Anthony Eugenia’s DPNY and has expanded significantly in partnership with the CDC. Players that want to test themselves against the best know they need to play 501, are being exposed to 501 earlier than ever before and are practicing 501 regularly.”
Another issue that North America and the United States specifically has faced over the years has been the legal status of sports betting. The influence of bookmakers on darts in terms of sponsorship cannot be overstated and it is easy to see how, as a result of being outlawed, the absence of these companies in the game across the Atlantic could cause problems. “The US Supreme Court overturned the federal law banning sports betting and, since then, we’ve seen a good number of states move to legalise; it’s growing fast. Obviously, betting companies are among the most logical places for us to establish partnerships outside of darts, and we’re working on that. The goal is to eventually get the major bookmakers to carry our events for the betting public, but with that comes a host of new challenges to make sure our events remain free of match-fixing allegations etc. I know we’re up to those challenges and I welcome them because that means we’ll have solved the more existential issue I talked about earlier.”
North American darts hasn’t been without its stars over the years, and there are plenty of players currently making an impact. The PDC World Championship last year, for example, saw Danny Baggish and Darin Young both send shockwaves through north London, with Baggish pushing Nathan Aspinall far in a second round encounter and Young defeating Raymond van Barneveld. What are Peter’s ambitions and expectations about how far this talent can go? “As I’ve said, our long-term goal is to find the next North American World Champion and that journey has to start somewhere. I’d be thrilled if we saw a few of our players go over to PDC Q-School and earn their cards this coming year and I’m very optimistic about that prospect. Don’t be surprised if names like Baggish, Lauby and Campbell join Jeff Smith on the PDC Tour Card roster next year. Just as important, if not more so, are the youth programs we’ve put together. Watch for names like Joey Lynaugh, PJ Stewart, Brayden Hall and Ryan Avellino as they come through the ranks. Other names will join them, especially as we work with the JDC to get Academies accredited here in the coming year, restrictions permitting.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected the sporting calendar this year and for an organisation like the CDC looking to continue their progress, it has proved to be an enormous challenge. For example, 2020 was intended to bring the US Darts Masters to New York for the first time, plans shelved due to Covid-19 and delayed until 2021. “The virus really threw us back on our heels this year. We’ve done a lot of work to try and adapt to what Mother Nature threw our way (the Champions League and Cyber Series, for example) but there’s no getting around the fact that we’re wired for in-person competition.
“I’m extremely proud of our staff and players for pulling together and supporting our efforts to put on the Canada Series and US Series events that allowed us to send Matt Campbell and Danny Baggish to the World Darts Championship and Chuck Puleo, Danny Lauby and Matt Campbell to the World Cup in Austria. To get that done in the middle of a pandemic with the wide and varying restrictions in place across our two countries was nothing short of amazing but it’s not the same as having a full CDC Tour, which includes the Junior and Evolution events for the youth as well.
“Losing New York hurt, but I’m confident the PDC will be back and better than ever. I remain hopeful that the efforts to develop a vaccine will be successful in short order, but if that proves not to be the case, we need to learn to live our lives again and our governments have to find a way to allow us to do so. As damaging and deadly as COVID-19 has been (I’m not downplaying that fact as I’ve lost dear friends to it), the consequences of the mitigation efforts could well prove to be worse overall. Businesses like ours that depend upon people being able to socialise and gather in the same room will not be able to survive another year going in and out of lockdown. Humans are social creatures and just aren’t made to endure what most of the West is doing. Depression and substance abuse are skyrocketing. Many people look to live sport as a means of getting away from the very real stresses they face day-to-day and denying those who want to participate/spectate is not the exercise in healthy community-building many of our leaders seem to think it is.”
The pandemic will not last forever, and the prospect of a return to live sport with spectators is a very real prospect, so I concluded by asking Peter what he was looking forward to seeing in 2021 darts-wise, “Again, I’m very happy that we were able to hold the US and Canada series over the last month. Even though it seemed that the odds were stacked against us, we were able to provide players with the opportunities that our relationship with the PDC has allowed us to offer. But it just wasn’t the same without the youth events and qualifiers. Anthony and I are working through a number of options for what the CDC might look like in 2021 and we hope to be able to announce our plans in December after discussing them with Matt Porter and the PDC. What I can say with confidence at this point is that we will not allow external events beyond our control to wholly consume us and control our destiny next year. We have a responsibility to all of our stakeholders to return to regular live competition and we will find a way to do that in a manner that allows those who wish to participate to do so safely. I’m not afraid of failure, but if we’re going to fail it’s going to be because of things we did or we didn’t do – not because we went through another year paralysed because of COVID.”
Image Credits: CDC and PDC
Thanks to Peter Citera