What happens in Vegas? Darts

LAS VEGAS -- A few minutes before 10 a.m Thursday morning, most of the 76 dartboards set up in the large ballroom at the Riviera Hotel and Casino were occupied. Lots of players were practicing throws. A few were unpacking darts from their cases and inspecting them. Others were just milling around, chatting, puffing on cigarettes, sipping their morning coffee ... or beer.

Just about what you'd expect at the national darts championship.

Although "SportsCenter" aired the Nevada segment of its "50 States in 50 Days" tour Wednesday, the real competition began Thursday morning, after an opening ceremony that included remarks by American Darters Association president Glenn Remick and a rendition of the national anthem, complete with color guard.

See, it's just like any other major sporting event ... or so you're thinking.

But it seems like a perfect fit for Sin City. And though Vegas might be best known for hosting heavyweight prizefights -- and now the World Series of Poker -- it has also hosted several ADA national championships, an event in its 14th year.

The championship takes place over four days. Thursday and Friday are dominated by team events. Saturday is devoted to doubles. And on Sunday, the singles champions are crowned. This year, there are nearly 600 people competing in the event and they hail from 18 states. At stake? Bragging rights ... and $75,000 in prize money.

By the way, that's $75,000 being dished out over the course of four days and 32 events -- pennies compared with the $103 million in purses at the World Series of Poker.

But we're talking darts, which hasn't exactly electrified the country like Texas Hold 'em. Heck, darts doesn't even have the national profile of Golden Tee, the video golf game that has become a standard feature in many bars.

Why has darts fallen so far behind?

"We have a huge image problem," Remick says. "It's not just an excuse to drink beer. ... We have to create an image that it isn't just a bar sport. It can be a family sport too."

To that end, Remick has started programs at places like the YMCA, putting dartboards in the group's facilities so kids can learn the game.

Another way to increase interest and improve the sport's image is to have recognized professionals competing in televised events so fans can watch and identify with players. This has happened in England, where darts has been, and continues to be, hugely popular.

Remick is an expert player himself and has competed in darts events around the globe. He has dreamed of starting a national darts league in the U.S. since he started playing as an 18-year-old in 1969 and is launching a professional certification program next year. Lately, he has held talks with multiple television networks.

"It feels like it's moving at a snail's pace," Remick says. "But it's still pretty exciting."

Excitement was in the air Thursday morning after the opening ceremony at the Riviera as players raced to their assigned board for their first match of the day.

I struck up a conversation with Myra Templeton and Shawna Sopp as the action began. Both were from Lake Dallas, Texas, and it turned out they had a bye in the first round because they were two of the top-ranked players in the tournament.

Yes, these two are serious darts players. So is Shawna's husband, Tim, who won a warm-up event Wednesday night. Thursday was actually Shawna and Tim's four-year wedding anniversary. Want to guess where they got married?

That's right. In Vegas.

In the Riviera wedding chapel.

During the national championship.

"We were driving around looking for a Bank One, and we couldn't find one, but we drove by a marriage license place," Shawna told me. "So he just turned to me, and said, 'Hey, wanna get married?' And I said, 'Yup, sure do.'

"We wanted to do it that day. But then I won the women's singles event that night, and it took so long that we had to wait till the next morning. Then we went out and won the doubles and triples events the next day."

Very serious darts players.

The Sopps are obsessed with the game, as are many of the other players here. They play five nights a week, on average. They even devote their vacations to darts. "It's what we do," Shawna says. "It becomes an addiction."

But the two do have different approaches to the game. Tim only drinks Diet Coke when he plays. "I need four or five beers before I start throwing well," Shawna says.

She had a beer when she and Myra began their first match of the day, against a team from Virginia. They were competing in the soft-tip event, using an electronic board -- as opposed to steel-tip, using a traditional board (the ADA holds events for both, although soft-tip is more popular).

Both teams were ridiculously good. And all the competitors definitely were wearing game faces. But they all were very quick to congratulate opposing players on good shots, dishing out fist bumps, or compliments like "Great darts!" or "Big stick!"

In fact, the thing that stood out most Thursday was the sportsmanship and camaraderie on display around the room. Everyone seemed to know one another, and to encourage one another. A bunch of people even came up to Shawna to wish her a happy anniversary. "Coming here, it's like having a whole 'nother family," Shawna says. "You can choose to be a Texan, but you're a darter for life."

And the darters don't take things too seriously. After all, it is Vegas. Many of the players can be found floating around the casino at night, gambling, going to shows, dancing at clubs. "We didn't get in till 4:30 in the morning last night," Shawna tells me. "But that's what you do. You play, you go out, you get hung over, you get up and you play again!"

That's the plan for the rest of the weekend here. Too bad I have to head home.

But when I get back? I'm gonna find me a dartboard.