A revenue-sharing deal that puts the William Hill World Darts Championship on BBC America this month illustrates how important live sports competitions have become in the broader television business.
The deal also provides a road map for niche sports that want linear TV distribution. ESPN, CBS, Fox and NBC Sports are consumed with the biggest games and the biggest leagues. But smaller properties like darts can find a home — and coveted time slots — at channels like BBC America.
“More and more entertainment networks are trying to own a piece of a live sporting franchise,” said Courtney Thomasma, executive director for BBC America. “It felt to us like a natural time to get in, and darts was a natural fit given its prominence in the U.K.”
BBC America, a channel jointly owned by AMC Networks and BBC Studios, is so sold on darts as a programming genre that it has scheduled the finals on one of its most heavily viewed days of the year — New Year’s Day. The U.S.-based channel for Anglophiles will use one of its highest-rated shows, the “Dr. Who New Year’s Day Special,” as a lead-in for the darts final.
Imagine a darts competition commanding such a coveted time slot on one of the bigger sports channels.
When you hear the way Thomasma talks about darts, a sport her channel first started carrying a year ago, you can see why general entertainment channels are becoming more interested in niche sports. It’s no secret that scripted entertainment programming has been hit with huge ratings dips. But ratings for many live sports — even a sport as niche as darts — have been rising, both on TV and online. BBC America offers darts as a livestream on its website and via Facebook Watch. The World Darts Championship hopes to have a deal with YouTube soon.
“We found the uptake around the livestream surprisingly popular,” she said. “There’s something about the immediacy of live sports and especially something that’s a little bit fringe that really appeals to the super sports fan and a more casual fan.”
Thomasma also sounds surprised by the passion of darts fans.
“The fandom around darts is passionate like we’ve never seen before,” Thomasma said. “Sports — especially the emerging sports category — has been somewhat immune to declining [ratings] pressures. The majority of the viewership is live, which is the holy grail in what we do. We actually find that there is an appetite for fringe sports.”
Sponsors have followed that interest. BBC America already has signed Geico, Mountain Dew and TD Ameritrade as sponsors, and more are expected.
“This is one of our categories that has gotten the most interest from sponsors when we’ve been out talking to agencies,” Thomasma said.