CAN rugby league learn any lessons from darts after the Word Darts Championship once again provided a compelling spectacle over the festive period?

More that 1.49m viewers were glued to their screens for Monday’s showpiece finale – which, for comparison, is higher than the peak figure of 1.1m for the free-to-air Challenge Cup Final.

Matchroom have transformed darts and its image since taking on a majority share in PDC 20 years ago – and that is paying dividends, quite literally.

Last month PDC Chairman Eddie Hearn announced that prize money on the PDC circuit will smash through the £15 million barrier in 2022.

St Helens Star:

So champion Peter Wright waltzed away from Ally Pally with half a million in winnings, whilst runner-up Michael Smith pocketed £200,000 to compensate for his disappointment.

But it is not about counting the money – that is simply the by-product of the way these events are built, sold and presented to find a way of penetrating markets.

This game of nerve and precision has been taken into living rooms up and down the country and made it the perfect TV sport.

You didn’t have to have a dog in the fight to be on the edge of your seat watching the Smith v Wright final.

Now rugby league has courted Eddie Hearn for the last three of four years, inviting him to the 2018 Challenge Cup Final. His first impressions were good, coming away tweeting that he “enjoyed it and learned a lot”.

But despite a clamour of rugby league fans imploring him to ‘rescue’ us, it does not seem likely that Hearn will be the game’s knight in shining armour.

As a strategy, maybe league fans bombarding him with begging tweets which stated words to the effect that ‘RL is a mess, will you please take it over’ was not the best sales pitch.

In an interview with Alastair Campbell, Hearn pointed out that one of Rugby League’s biggest weaknesses was that he can’t name the stars – rattling off Jamie Peacock, Andy Farrell, Martin Offiah and Ellery Hanley.

St Helens Star:

Clearly, Grace and Makinson et al had gone past him, but he is right; floating fans tune in to watch stars – and without doubt darts elevated those men and women on the oche to a level of national and global fame that rugby league could only dream of.

Michael Smith is, for example, is now without doubt the most easily recognisable sports star from St Helens.

Hearn had a good look at the sport, and was impressed with the fast pace of the game, but looking at the interview he later gave to the FT in October 2020 it all fell down on the thorny issue of ownership.

It concluded with him saying: “Either we rip up the script and we do it our way, or we don’t bother.

"Cos it’s f*ed, rugby league. Beyond f**ed.”

So, hardly a glowing endorsement from the man viewed as our saviour.

However, no assessment from an astute, outside pair of eyes, no matter how damning, should be lost.

While Hearn may not be jumping on board, there must be aspects and techniques he has adopted in darts and boxing that rugby league can imitate. There are ideas it can adopt and innovations that can be converted.

Rugby league has plenty going for it; not least the athletes themselves and the explosive, exciting nature of the game.

On top of that it has a fiercely loyal support base, even if it spends much of its time moaning about how bad the game is while telling outsiders it is the greatest game.

That strength is double-edged - strong on its core support but weak on pulling in casual sports fans.

St Helens Star:

You see that in the special days; compare and contrast the big events that rugby union puts on – packing out Twickenham for a festive league match with thousands of extra casual fans – and then put that alongside League's struggle to shift tickets for Magic and now, sadly, the big finals.

So a first objective needs to be to broaden the game's appeal.

Maybe that is chicken and egg; we need the big stars and household names to pull in new followers and better broadcast coverage (and rewards) but we also need the latter to create the former.

But this is where we start from, so let’s chip away – starting with the top and look at the arrers.

As a sport it knows it is the big events that bring home the bacon, and the World Darts Championships is now a juggernaut that defines Christmas sport and then fuels the sport of darts for the year ahead.

St Helens Star:

The way the PDC and Sky Sport build the three weeks at Ally Pally should be a blueprint for Super League’s Finals series.

And rugby league, with the product it has, must surely be able to draw out those characters and personalities and present the sport in a bit more slicker manner.

The PDC will announce its Premier League spots within this fortnight – and the way the coveted dozen places are handed out is not that straightforward.

The organisers don’t simply pick those in the top 12 rankings, they select characters and personalities who add an X-factor.

Players who will bring something else to help fill the big arenas up and down the country every Thursday night.

You could say, if league were to do with clubs then that would be called licensing.

The other things darts still does well, which is maybe a touch easier given it is not a physical contact sport, is it still offers a variety of competitions; from 30 or so regular Players Championships to World Matchplay, World Grand Prix and the Grand Slam of Darts. These are big events to promote and potentially win.

They give players targets, no pun intended, to aim for throughout the whole year.

St Helens Star:

League used to have a multitude of competitions; Lancashire Cup, BBC2 Floodlit Trophy, John Player, Challenge Cup and Premiership Trophy – these served to offer chances to win silverware, and yes, entice additional non-regular support to the big games.

League went away from that with the emphasis loaded on weekly Super League rounds. But maybe the players, core support and potential casual fans would be prepared to sacrifice a few league rounds for a different trophy.

Which leads to another aspect of darts, in these events the cream inevitably rises to the top, but there is an opportunity for players who have won their Tour Card via Q School to play against the best.

We don’t have that in rugby league any more. The multitude of cups invariably meant minnows would get to play on the big stage, or benefit from a healthy home gate. But we have done away with that – and even the Challenge Cup is effectively seeded so it never happens.

Maybe the model in rugby league should be the same number of games, but more variety.

Rugby league is a wonderful sport; but if it is to stop treading water it has to find the same formula that darts currently has. That ability to make whole households, with no interest in the arrows, to turn on and watch every single throw.