Gary Newbon: Barry hit the bullseye in darts success story

My long TV presenting career has seen many changes in life, technology, media, migration, weather and sport. Each topic has seen dramatic developments. In sport, I have witnessed the demise of showjumping and the unbelievable rise in the popularity of darts - the sport sells out audiences that cannot see the action with the naked eye!

Let us deal with showjumping quickly. When I was growing up in the 1950s, and 1960s, showjumping was always on TV - mostly the BBC but ITV did cover some events. It was classic overkill.

But the Horse Of The Year show was always a high-profile sell-out and there were huge TV audiences. Showjumpers like David Broome, Harvey Smith and Warwickshire's Ann Moore plus Nick Skelton, were household names. Broome won the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year award in 1960.

These days, the general public would struggle to name showjumpers now that Skelton has retired. Over-exposure killed it as a major TV sport and snooker suffered the same until ace promoter Barry Hearn rescued the green baize sport. But the biggest progress has been darts, again led by Hearn.

Nearly five million Sky viewers watched Luke Littler, the 16-year-old sensation, in the final of this year's World Darts. That is a massive digital audience. Sky has never hit that figure with football.

Everywhere is a sell-out on the PDC circuit. Even Saudi Arabia now want to add it to their 'art-type' collection of world sports. I am currently recording a podcast with Barry, with myself as host on The Barry Hearn Show.

Details are still secret but we are making our first series of 12 shows. It will have a major platform. The second show concentrates on this huge rise but, without giving too much away, in a fascinating insight by Hearn he does predict that Littler, now 17, will be a millionaire before the end of this year.

In 10 years' time, he claims darts will be bigger than golf and that the top players will be multi-millionaires. Hearn has been a genius. To turn a pub game played by smoking beer-swilling, often overweight players into this worldwide sensation - sell-outs in Poland and the USA the latest! - is staggering.

I came across the first of the superstars, a very young Eric Bristow, the 'Crafty Cockney', soon after joining ATV.

He had moved to Stoke-on-Trent and allowed me to make an early documentary which included an interview with his lovely mum in London. Bristow was to become a mate until his sad and premature death in April 2018 at the age of 60 when suffering a heart attack on a visit to Liverpool. As an aside, a good story about Eric was when I was on World Cup duty in the USA at the 1994 World Cup.

I travelled from Pasadena to Santa Monica to have dinner with my colleague Trevor East. On the way, back my hired car had a tyre blow out on the packed freeway (motorway) and a passing LAPD police patrol stopped to help me change it as there were NO tools in my vehicle! The police asked me where I was from and then asked if I knew Eric Bristow.

I said yes and did they know him from visits to England to which they explained that they had never left the USA but were mad on darts and had a team in the police sports room. I promised them a message from Eric. Bristow then provided a signed photo which read: "To the LAPAD darts team, thanks for saving my mate's a***...

Eric Bristow." I had seen the potential for darts - a perfect TV sport for the small screen. So with the help of Butlin's sponsorship, I arranged for the then ruling body the BDO (the British Darts Organisation run by Ollie and Lorna Croft) to provide the top 24 players in the world for a knock-out competition known as the Butlin's Grand Masters to be played in the Birmingham area over two days and shown exclusively on ATV from 1977 and then Central TV until 1986.

The first final, an all-England affair, was played at the Sutton Coldfield Town Hall and won by John Lowe who beat 20-year-old Bristow five legs to four. I insisted on legs rather than sets to fit my half-hour (24 minutes of actual content) TV slots. Then we moved to other venues, including the now-demolished Swan Pub at Yardley and the New Cresta nightclub above the Solihull Ice Rink.

In the 1978 final, giant Welshman Leighton Rees beat Lowe, then England's Bobby George won the next two before Bristow got his revenge against Lowe in 1981. Bristow won the next four of five tournaments before darts was taken over by the players forming the PDC (Professional Darts Council, as it is today) in January 1992. I recall characters like the late Jocky Wilson, who loved a drink or six, with great affection.

Hearn came in to help the PDC and rest as they say is history.

It's a spectator phenomenon.

I hope you have a good Easter today and tomorrow and then read my Tuesday column in both the Birmingham Mail and Coventry Telegraph with Utilita Energy.