2019 already has its first world champion and he's $630,000 richer

Key Points
  • Michael van Gerwen beat Michael Smith to win the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Darts Championship in London to win £500,000 ($630,000) first prize.
  • The total prize fund for the two-week event totalled £2.5 million ($3.3 million).
  • The PDC will host darts events in the U.K., Netherlands and Germany in 2019.
Michael van Gerwen of the Netherlands lifts the trophy after victory in the Final match against Michael Smith of England during Day 17 of the 2019 William Hill World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace on January 01, 2019 in London, United Kingdom.
Jordan Mansfield | Getty Images

The first major sporting world champion of 2019 has already been crowned, with Michael van Gerwen winning the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World title for a third time on New Year's Day.

The 2019 PDC World Darts Championship featured a record prize fund of £2.5m ($3.3m), with the winner awarded £500,000 ($630,000) – up £100,000 on the previous year's edition.

Traditionally seen as a working-class pub sport, the last quarter century has seen the PDC grow darts into a multi-million dollar empire across the U.K. and Europe. Now each year, more than 80,000 fans gather at London's Alexandra Palace over the last two weeks of December and into January for a fortnight of darts and a party at its crown jewel event, the World Darts Championship.

"A lot of the problems that exist in other sports don't exist in darts. It's a party, with a world class sporting event all wrapped into one thing." PDC Chairman Barry Hearn told CNBC ahead of the championship.

Darts grew a large television following through the 1970s and 80s in the U.K., making household names out of players like Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson, with their fame comparable to soccer stars of the same time.

How darts moved from the pub to the world stage

"Most sports revolve around the appeal of stars. That's what the fans relate to," Sport Business Head Consultant Simon Cory-Wright told CNBC. "Obviously compelling exciting competition is key in a big way as well, but stars are at the center of all of that."

However, it wasn't until the early 1990s that darts was taken to another level. A player dispute meant a split from the established British Darts Organization to form a breakaway tour, now known as the Professional Darts Corporation, or PDC.

The period that followed coincided with a prolonged period of dominance in the sport by Phil "The Power" Taylor. He would win 14 world titles with the PDC and 16 in total, before retiring in 2018.

His supremacy added to a growth in viewing figures and led to more investment from broadcasters. U.K. pay-television broadcaster Sky Sports live coverage of the event increased in 2018 by 30 percent to over 110 hours for the World Championship.

"In the past there's been a little bit of snobbishness in some circles looking down their noses saying 'it's only darts', but now all of those sports wish they were 'only darts.'" said Hearn.

"We've broken boundaries and are a classless sport now. You'll see city bankers sat next to people who work in petrol forecourts or garages or builders. All united with the idea of having a great time."

The majority of PDC events take place in Europe and primarily in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands, but it continues to explore new places to popularize the sport. Previous years have even seen tournaments as far away as Las Vegas, Dubai and Shanghai.

In June 2018 at the German Masters held in the Veltens Arena in Gelsenkirchen, a world record crowd of 20,210 came to watch the one-day event.

"Darts has created an in-venue experience that is fantastic for the fans, but it translates effectively and professionally onto TV. A very important part of that is the consistency of the product and this is a crucial thing for broadcasters. They don't want the events to look different week to week," said Cory-Wright. "Each time you watch it on TV, you recognize it."

Times have changed when it comes to player sponsorship as well. Gone are the days of small local businesses adorning the flamboyant player shirts, with multinational corporations now part of the darting landscape.

"It's massive for everyone. Sponsorship is guaranteed money, whereas on tours you have to go out and win games and achieve what you want," 2018 PDC World Champion Rob Cross told CNBC.

When Cross's partnership with the German based multinational SAP was announced back in March 2018, the company's vice president of Global Employment Branding Matthew Jeffery told the company's website "Rob's story shows that you can achieve anything you dream, and that is the very same message SAP employees share."

U.K.-based bookmaker William Hill's extended its title sponsorship of the PDC World Darts Championship until 2022. The bookmaker has sponsored the event since the 2014 tournament. Gambling is a prominent feature of the darts experience, with William Hill establishing its own pop-up shop ready to take bets in the fans village, as well as regularly updating in-play odds on big screens throughout the evening in the main arena.

Darts world champion scoops $630,000 prize as sport ups its global presence