Alexandra Palace, London
There’s five men dressed in sparkling suits, who are walking behind a gaggle of ghostbusters – it’s a sure sign that the World Darts Championship is in full swing.
Held in north London’s historic Alexandra Palace, this one-of-a-kind annual sporting spectacle is a magnet for thousands of people intent on revelling in the often heady, and always bizarre, experience of watching the world’s best darts player battle it out for the Sid Waddell Trophy.
The competition, held over the Christmas period and into the New Year, boasts a unique atmosphere. It’s an event where alcohol is measured in pitchers rather than in pints and where pantomime-like audience participation is welcomed as fans let themselves go for a few hours.
This year, the event has gained extra attention thanks to the historic performances from the sport’s new superstar, Luke Littler.
The 16-year-old, widely unknown before making his debut at this year’s championships, has captured the public’s imagination by becoming the youngest player to ever reach the tournament’s semifinals.
The teenager, fresh out of school, has subsequently become the poster boy of this year’s competition which has once again provided plenty of drama.
To fully understand this annual feast of darting excellence, it’s advisable to embrace the art of fancy dress.
Spectators dress in the most outrageous costumes imaginable; a tradition which leads to some confusing double takes as ticket holders gather at the entrance.
On any given day, you can see a pair of Power Rangers chatting to a group of Minions, witness a man dressed head-to-toe as a dart board taking pictures of a herd of human-sized furry animals, and Superman struggling to pull up an e-ticket on his phone.
The choice of attire reflects the carnival atmosphere which draws thousands of people to one of London’s most treasured entertainment venues every year.
Opened 150 years ago and providing stunning panoramic views of London, Alexandra Palace now hosts an array of cultural events including music gigs, firework displays and theatre performances.
The imposing Victorian building situated on a North London hill has seen the likes of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Jay-Z play at the venue, though over the last 16 years, it’s become synonymous with darts. If soccer has Wembley Stadium and tennis has Wimbledon, darts has ‘Ally Pally.’
The neon green branding of the tournament’s main sponsor unapologetically covers the giant murals which for years have adorned the Palace’s grand hallways, while not-so-cheap but always cheerful fast food outlets serve greasy goodies in the vast Great Hall that once hosted banquets.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere and a chance to get drunk. It’s like a football match, without any of the hostility,” fan Richard Sampson, dressed as a ghostbuster, told CNN Sport, reflecting on why he chose to attend with his partner and their friends.
“You’re not supporting anyone; you’re just cheering when something good happens. The sport is secondary.”
The darts disciples who make this pilgrimage to their sporting nirvana every year need little encouragement to enjoy themselves, with the euphoria starting on the steps outside the entrance and continuing all the way to the stage in the Palace’s West Hall.
Fans belt out an eclectic array of chants as they watch the pulsating action on the edge of their seats, tension etched all over their faces, coiled to celebrate absolutely everything and anything.
Some still question whether darts, a pursuit made popular in English pubs during the 19th and 20th centuries, can be considered a true sport given players are not always in the greatest of athletic shapes and would historically drink and smoke during professional matches.
But that tired stereotype stands in stark contrast to the unmatched theatre that a day of world championship darts can provide, as players remain ruthlessly precise under the most incredible pressure, resulting in some titanic battles which have boosted the sport’s popularity in recent years.
This winner of this year’s world championship will now not only get their hands on the Sid Waddell Trophy – named after the late broadcaster who became known as “the voice of darts” – but will also take home a share of the £2.5 million ($3.16 million) prize purse.
That not insignificant sum of money is partly a result of television interest – Sky Sports signed a seven-year deal to broadcast darts matches on a dedicated channel in 2017.
“The support of Sky Sports since the PDC was formed almost 25 years ago has been a vital part in the sport’s success,” then Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) chairman Barry Hearn, now president of the organization, said when that broadcast deal was announced.
This year, with the interest in Littler bringing a new audience to the sport, Sky said it has witnessed record viewing figures.
Littler’s victory against Brendan Dolan, for example, was the most watched quarterfinal in the tournament’s history on Sky Sports, with a peak of 1.4 million.
The show truly starts when the players enter the arena to music of their choice, with crowd-pleasing tunes whipping the already intoxicated fans into even more of a frenzy.
For that brief moment, it’s as if the players are rockstars, akin to David Bowie and Prince, with the audience in the palm of their hand.
When the matches start, the cheers from the crowd are punctuated by the metronomic thud of darts hitting their target.
The biggest cheers are reserved for when players achieve the maximum score of 180, a signal for the crowd to throw their beers in the air.
The noise never seems to diminish, and ratchets up as the afternoon crowd makes way for the noticeably more merry evening session.
“Stand up, if you love the darts” is the go-to rallying cry that punctuates each session.
“I know nothing about darts, but everyone is so friendly,” Tracy Dixon-Smith, wearing a bright green wig as she attends her first darts tournament, told CNN Sport.
“It took me ages to come back from the toilet because I was dancing with everyone that I met. It was great fun, it’s just a party.”
While fans dance, players are focused on the sport. Some look to block out the noise, while others help orchestrate the chants, harnessing the energy of the crowd to enhance their own performance.
“Walking here today I got goosebumps, knowing I’m going to play on that stage again,” the sport’s new hero Littler told CNN Sport ahead of his third-round match.
The breakthrough star has stunned the world by bulldozing his way to the final four of the competition, beating opponents with decades more experience on the way.
Since bursting onto the global stage after an impressive junior career, Littler has seen his popularity rocket – he now boasts tens of thousands more social media followers than before.
His love for celebrating wins by eating kebabs has been well documented by the global media which has jumped on the Littler bandwagon.
His whirlwind introduction to life as a professional darts player has already sparked controversy – the youngster felt the need to apologize after posing with a picture of a UK red-top newspaper.
But the Xbox-loving teenager has not let the dizzying last few weeks impact his darts, with his performances on stage showing remarkable maturity.
“I love it,” he added, when asked how he’s handling the pressure of the crowd.
“People are chanting, necking beers, it’s crazy. It’s hard to focus, they are chanting your name, but you have to keep it out of your head and somehow have to focus.”
Littler is now one of the favourites to lift the trophy on January 3, but must first beat former world champion Rob Cross in the semifinals on Tuesday.
Arguably few events can match the combination of the most theatrical sporting drama imaginable and the explosion of collective silliness at Alexandra Palace.
Fans, many intoxicated, leave breathless from the day, desperate to return to this corner of London again to witness a sporting event quite like no other.
At the end of the night, when everyone has danced their way to the nearest watering-hole, the grand old Alexandra Palace stands quiet after another relentless day of action, the only reminder of the hordes of revellers being the discarded fancy dress items which lie strewn down its historic steps.