Leisure doesn’t always make business sense, and success doesn’t mean turning a profit. Against the logic of expansion and abundance, Stoke has something major metropolitan cities do not, Mark Ball finds. His research looks at the connections between leisure, wellbeing and sense of place — and currently involves playing a lot of darts.
It’s down to the last leg – after over 2 of darts we need Liam to take us home. A hush descends as the players kick in – our place in the league (and general bragging rights) are on the line. The shot of adrenaline has sobered me up. It may be an ordinary looking pub but it feels anything but ordinary on a Tuesday night.
It’s hard to exaggerate how big darts is in Stoke-on-Trent. In terms of darting celebrity Stoke comes up trumps with Phil Taylor – the greatest darts player of all time. But more than this it’s the size and quality of the local leagues that makes Stoke “the home of darts”. After 9 great months in the Burslem Darts League I’ve learned to be surprised when a pub doesn’t have a darts board, rather than the other way round.
The way people talk about darts in Stoke stands in stark contrast to the blighted narrative on show either side of the EU referendum. “Everyone wants to play in the Stoke leagues. It’s better leagues, simple as. And the great people … I wouldn’t like to do the league anywhere else”. Chris currently runs the Burslem league, and has been playing in it for 20 years. With over 50 teams and 4 divisions planned for next season, alongside the other leagues in the city, “it’s only getting bigger and better in Stoke-on-Trent”.
“You can go in any pub [in Stoke] and there’ll be a dart board or two, if you go in certain pubs there’ll be 8 or 9 darts boards”
Chris, who runs the Burslem Darts League.
Dave has been playing darts in Stoke for over 50 years. “It’s simple, if I didn’t play darts I wouldn’t know anyone”. A league game is a night-out – a release from the trappings of everyday life, a chance to have a laugh with new and old friends. “I play Mondays and Tuesdays and look forward to it every week, we all do!”
“You don’t find darts boards down South, they go to wine bars”. Jim has been in the league for 30 years and currently plays 3 nights a week. “There aren’t darts boards in wine bars!”
But there are, it seems, darts boards in cocktail bars.
Like bowling and minigolf before it, darts has been given a slick inner-city corporate-cocktails makeover with Flight Club. With 2 outposts in London and another in Chicago, they claim to deliver a “social experience like no other”. Since opening doors four years ago, Flight Club boasts the invention of “social darts … for the 21st century”, with touchscreens and easy-to-use multiplayer options for beginners.
The sell is the novelty experience, which Flight Club will capture with highlights and group photos ready for social media. They can also cater for corporate crowds, with rooms equipped for presentations and workshops – for £85 a head Flight Club can deliver “an exhilarating blend of business and pleasure”.
Like Brooklyn Bowl and Bounce, the glossy fronts of bowling and table tennis, these adult playgrounds are quickly becoming a hallmark of the global metropolitan city: a growing leisure industry pitched at a younger crowd seeking something different and entertaining. From bowling to curling they follow a tight formula: an inner-city venue serving cocktails, craft beer and wood-fired pizza, bolstered by (of course) a five star rating from Time Out.
Despite the oches and arrows these are two different visions of leisure in cities.
At The Brown Bear in Stoke-on-Trent we currently have 2 men’s teams, 3 women’s teams and 3 darts boards packed into a cozy pub. Darts is a pub game, which lends it a certain cheapness and unpretentiousness, but also makes it vulnerable to pub closures. Last season 4 pubs closed in the Burslem league, leaving players temporarily home- and leisure-less. A pressing concern is the rising price of beer – the economic bedrock of the league – always threatening to keep regulars away. “You do need a lot of pubs for the league to work” acknowledges Chris, “but we’ve always got around it, we’ll continue to work around it”.
It is easy to be cynical about Flight Club, but the proliferation of the adult playground does not begin with them – they didn’t invent awkward dates and office outings that benefit from something (anything) to talk about. Pubs are exclusionary spaces in lots of ways, and Flight Club’s friendly front may have served to introduce new people to darts in a supportive, fun environment. Some may have even taken their new passion a step further and popped into the stuffy-looking pub with a darts board they usually walk past – trickle-down darts?
But Flight Club increasingly represents success in the modern city, whilst more traditional darts leagues do not. Though people surely have fun at these adult playgrounds, their success also reflects an ability to market themselves to corporate cultures, and attract a clientele that helps pay city centre rents. Social darts exists in Stoke-on-Trent, it just isn’t as well branded.
“Social darts? That’s not social darts, we’ve got social darts!” Dave and Chris aren’t impressed by the Flight Club promotional video. “Come up here and we’ll show you what darts is about!”
Leisure doesn’t always make business sense, and success doesn’t mean turning a profit. Against the logic of expansion and abundance, Stoke has something major metropolitan cities do not. If darts becomes touchscreens, work-dos and Tinder dates then something else might be lost along the way. Maybe big cities could be more like Stoke.
Name of pub and interviewees have been changed.
- Mark recently went out for a darts game with Gavin Hayes from The Guardian to discuss Stoke and ‘Social Darts’. The article can be found on the Guardian website.