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Despite local league’s growth, darts' regional popularity declines

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Phillip Allen steps up to the black and yellow-striped line, grizzly-grey beard hanging from his jawline. The score is tied 8-8 between Allen’s Seabring Rednecks and the home team, Dryden VFW-1. Allen has the fate of the Rednecks in his steady right hand. The stakes: the Finger Lakes Steel Tip Dart League championship. Carefully eyeing the double-four he needs to win the match, Allen throws a dart that catches its target, sending his team into jubilation. The best-of-three championship series between Seabring and Dryden is now knotted at one match apiece.

“It’s better to have a close game. Then you know, basically, everybody shoots good and it brings good competition out,” Allen said.

After closing out the match on Wednesday, April 1, the Finger Lakes Dart League’s two-time reigning champion Seabring will take on Dryden in the final round of the league’s playoffs at their home-turf Sebring Inn in Newfield on Wednesday, April 8.

Even as darts has grown in popularity as a spectator sport in international circles, regional dart leagues in Upstate New York have all seen a decline in popularity in recent years that echoes a national trend.

The American Dart Organization (ADO) was founded in 1976 as a network to connect the leagues that had been popping up across the country. Organization membership and outreach peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s: In 1989 a record number of 342 teams were members, and in 1991 a record 136 tournaments were listed on the ADO calendar, according to the organization’s historical timeline. The Finger Lakes league used to be an ADO member, but dropped its membership over ten years ago.

“What really hurt us is the smoking in the bars and the DWI thing,” said Jody Luce, a player for the Finger Lakes’ underdog VFW-1 team who’s played in the league since 1983, referencing the New York State smoking ban that went into effect in July 2003. “A lot of guys [said]: ‘I can’t smoke in the bar? I can’t smoke while I shoot darts?’”

But other larger area leagues have seen steady declines––albeit ones that have lessened in recent years––without longtime members having noticed the same pronounced effect from legislative changes Luce noted. The Southern Tier Dart League out of Binghamton has always been one of the larger area leagues, at one point having well over 200 teams, but is now down to about 110 teams, and continues to lose a few teams a year, according to league president Bob Lateer.

“It’s the economy; people are moving out of town and there’s not a lot of shooters coming up,” said Lateer. “And kids nowadays aren’t really interested.”

Every February, the Salt City Dart League in Syracuse hosts one of the nation’s top-five tournaments in terms of payouts. The tournament brings professional players and retains a high level of local visibility. However, the league has experienced a slight decline in league membership as well, and has trouble attracting younger players.

“Over the past few years our league has gotten a little bit smaller,” Salt City Dart League President Brian Oliver said. “Every year we get new teams, but the majority of the league are veteran players.”

Oliver sees this trend of the popularity decline of area leagues as partly caused by a growth in the popularity of soft tip darts, which he also plays.

“Soft tip leagues remain the same and get bigger,” Oliver said. “You’ve got fancier boards that do the math for you; they’ve got flashing lights and cameras now in the soft tip boards. I could go down to the local bar and sign up for an online game and play somebody in Mexico right now if I wanted to,” he said.

The Finger Lakes Dart League has always been on the smaller side compared to leagues from larger Upstate New York cities, but at one time had 24 teams, according to Luce. While the league is still around only 10 teams, Luce feels positively about the league’s future.

“Five, six years ago all we could drum up was six teams,” Luce said. “It’s come back little by little.”

On April 18 the league will be hosting a cricket tournament at the Dryden VFW for the second consecutive year, and league President Woody Laird hopes it will help increase local exposure and attract new teams.

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