Michael Smith, the world’s No. 1-ranked darts player, has won the equivalent of $1.5 million since the start of 2022. In January, he won the World Darts Championship in London, where he achieved the rare feat of nine perfect throws in a row. He says he hasn’t reached the peak of his abilities and is “getting better every year.”
But of course, he isn’t always perfect, or even close to it. When Smith aims for the triple 20 — the highest-value subsection of the board, but smaller than half a square inch — he hits it less than half the time.
Professional darts is far from the most popular sport in the world, but it is a useful study of progress toward perfection. Its top professional players, on average, post higher scores today than their counterparts did a generation ago. These gains can be seen in other sports, too: Whether it’s hitting the bull’s-eye in archery, nailing a kick between the uprights in football or sinking a free throw in basketball, the world’s top players have improved their rates of precision meaningfully in the last four decades.
Keith Deller won his 1983 championship title in darts by hitting the triple-20 section 37 percent of the time that he aimed at it. Smith hit the same section 46 percent of the time in his 2023 championship final. The best throwers have gotten a little closer to perfection, even if perfection is very far away.
What explains these improvements in darts and other sports? Why do athletes always seem to get better, generation by generation? And what happens if they get too good?
Making the game easier
Today’s athletes may be more skilled than their predecessors. But they are often playing with better equipment or technology that can boost their scores. Darts is no exception.
The darts themselves have improved. They’ve become thinner, making it less likely that previously thrown darts will crowd out the board.
But the triple-20 region has also grown in size, because of a change in the construction of the board. In the early 1990s, the wires that separate the scoring sections were as thick as 1.8 millimeters in diameter, according to Lee Huxtable, a production designer at Winmau, a board manufacturer. But they are now closer to 0.6 millimeters wide.
These small changes have increased the height of the triple-20 region to roughly 9.4 millimeters from 8 millimeters. In addition, the wires are now less rounded and angled toward the target. This means darts are less likely to bounce off the board and more likely to be directed toward the triple-scoring segments.
Scores have improved since the days of the old boards. Thirty years ago, John Lowe won the world championship with a three-dart average — the standard metric for tracking player performance — of 84. Smith had a three-dart average of 101 when he won this year’s championship.
It’s hard to ascertain how much of the improvement is because of the boards and how much credit should go to the athletes themselves. “I know that the players from the ’90s, like Eric Bristow, John Lowe, Dennis Priestley and Jocky Wilson, would have 100 percent competed with the players of today,” said Phil Taylor, who won 16 world championships from 1990 to 2013.
In other sports, the challenges have gotten tougher. A standard outdoor competition in recurve archery — using the traditional bows without wheels or pulleys — included targets as close as 30 meters until the early 1990s. Now archers shoot from 70 meters. If the 30-meter round were still held today, it would “be kind of boring,” said Brady Ellison, a three-time Olympic medalist for the United States. The top archers would essentially never miss.
Top scores from recent Olympics at 70 meters are comparable to the best scores at 30 meters half a century ago. If today’s archers were shooting at 30 meters, they might score 358, 359 or even a perfect 360, Ellison said.
(Part of the improvement can be credited to technology: The bows are thinner, so they are less affected by the wind, and made from machined aluminum instead of wood.)
Professional bowling has also opted to set conditions that make perfection harder, so much so that the good league bowlers at your local lanes generally score higher than the pros on tour, said Tom Clark, the commissioner of the Professional Bowlers Association. It’s because of the differences in how oil is applied to the wooden surfaces of the lanes. Although virtually invisible, oil patterns in bowling are immensely important and dictate how much the ball will hook.
“House shot,” an oil pattern used by most recreational bowling lanes, provides a larger margin of error and usually leads to higher scores. Since the late 1970s, the P.B.A. has used oil patterns called “sport shot,” which make the game fairer because they are standardized — but also make it more difficult because they are less forgiving.
Still, average scores have increased since the first P.B.A. Tournament of Champions. Clark believes “the bowler has gotten better” over the decades.
Expanding the player pool
If not for technology, why are today’s players better? One reason is that more people play. If the money available in a sport increases, it may attract more people who were born to play the game — who are at the high end of the innate ability distribution.
In 1993, the nation’s largest women’s professional basketball league, the W.B.A., had just six teams and paid players $50 a game. Robelyn Garcia, a four-time W.B.A. all-star, said in an email that she had teammates who quit because it was impossible to hold down a full-time job while playing in the league.
When the W.N.B.A. started play in 1997, it had eight teams and an annual salary range of $15,000 to $50,000. That season, its best 10 free-throw shooters sank 83.8 percent of their attempts on average. By 2000, the top 10 players averaged 88.7 percent, and in 2019 the top 10 reached 92.4 percent. There are now 12 teams with salaries ranging from about $62,000 to $235,000, more than doubling the 1997 pay scale after accounting for inflation.
Professional darts has also grown significantly. In 1978 the top prize for winning the B.D.O. World Darts Championship, the biggest tournament of its time, was 3,000 British pounds (about $26,800 in 2023 dollars). In 2023, the P.D.C. World Darts Championship awarded £500,000 (about $629,000) for its top prize.
Roughly 40 to 70 people consider themselves full-time dart players on the P.D.C. tour. But of the top 50 players in the world rankings, only two are from outside Europe, and 19 are from outside Britain or Ireland. This implies that many of the potentially great dart players in the world have never played the game, at least outside of a bar.
While anyone can join the tour, it is hard to make a living as an outsider. Jim Long, a former factory worker from Ontario, started competing professionally in 2017 — at age 50. In a recent exhibition at Madison Square Garden, he beat Smith, the world No. 1. It was the highlight of his career, he said.
But it would be difficult for someone like Long, based in North America, to make a living in the P.D.C., the biggest darts organization in the world. Just to have a shot at a six-figure income he would need to travel around Europe dozens of weekends a year.
If the sport continues to expand its prize money, especially in smaller tournaments outside Europe, the number of full-time competitors could grow, raising the likelihood of the next great player committing to a career in darts.
Practice, practice, practice
Of course, the best players in basketball, darts and other sports may also be getting better through improved training or natural talent — but where is the limit?
Antonia Zaferiou, an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has studied muscle and body movement in performers ranging from ballerinas to golfers. In her research, she has found that average people may perform a motion (like shooting a basketball) by attempting to move their muscles with the same force and angles every time, but practiced athletes are better at performing “closed loop movement,” taking in feedback during the course of motion to adjust for factors such as their own fatigue.
She cited the example of Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, holder of the highest career free-throw percentage in W.N.B.A. history, who intentionally practices free throws after she gets tired. In theory, this type of training increases the range of conditions her body is prepared for.
Dozens of academic papers have studied factors that might affect free-throw shooting, including compression shorts and jet lag, but it has been unclear which findings will prove useful for all athletic disciplines. That’s partly why Zaferiou believes that the limit of consistency in athletic tasks is an open question, with no consensus answer in her academic field.
In darts, the results may depend on the paths of a few individuals and the eccentricities of the game. Taylor, the 16-time world champion, improved over the course of his career, staying ahead of his competitors, who also got better. He recorded his highest world championship average score at age 50. But he doesn’t predict much more improvement.
“I don’t think players will improve a great deal more over the next 20 years,” he said in an email.
But don’t count this generation out. Smith, the current world No. 1, is just 32.