Watch enough professional darts competitions, and you will be treated to one of the most iconic calls in sports: “OOOONE-HUUUUNDRED-AND-EIIIIIGHTEE!” The call, shouted by referees around the world, tends to follow a similar cadence and inflection: starting as a bass-rattling bellow, soaring in pitch and volume to hit its triumphant, prolonged crescendo, then falling once more to a lower register.
It’s a call befitting the maximum score in a single turn at the oche, or the throwing line. In darts, 180s are king, occurring when a player lands three consecutive darts in the triple-20 section of the board. It’s the highest possible point total a player can achieve with three darts, bringing them ever closer to checking out with a score of zero and winning the game. When a player achieves this feat in a game, the referee has to rise to the occasion.
“Darts itself now has become very much theatre,” says referee Russ Bray. “It’s a show, and the referees are now part of that show.” In darts, refs have dual responsibilities in officiating matches and calling out scores, putting them in a unique position that requires them to inject some excitement into the proceedings while also solving math problems in their heads. Though he no longer plays competitively, Bray has become one of the most recognizable figures in darts. Known as “The Voice,” he’s famous for his thunderous, raspy calls that can imbue a well-thrown dart with all the force of an MMA knockout.
The 180 call comes with a general template, but referees often to put their own individual spins on it. “Each referee makes it their own song,” says Bray. As I talk to him over the phone, I try to replicate the general template for the call. “Your example of a 180,” he says, “is how Kirk Bevins does it, and it suits his voice, it suits his call. Paul Hinks is sort of on one level, George [Noble] has got a nice singing-style 180, and mine is just pure gravel.” Some referees will emphasize a certain syllable as their signature. Others use pitch and speed to make themselves stand out. But whatever the identifying factor is, “it’s very important to be different,” says Bray.
Bray has developed his calls for over 20 years, starting in his county league when the ref was a no-show. The former policeman and scaffolder did well enough as a fill-in to become one of the county’s callers, but refereeing didn’t become his full-time job until after “The Split.” The British Darts Organisation (BDO) was the premier organization for professional darts until 1992, when the game’s top players, fed up with the organization’s dwindling sponsorships and prize money, broke off to form their own tour, eventually creating the PDC. “At the time the BDO were banning everybody if you had anything to do with the PDC. I’m not really a political person, so I was asked by the PDC if I was interested in being a reserve referee,” says Bray. “And I said, ‘Yes, I would love to.’”
Since The Split, the PDC has grown exponentially, due in in part to Barry Hearn, a boxing and sport promoter who acquired a majority share of the PDC, becoming chairman in 2001. Hearn is responsible for ramping up PDC events into full-fledged spectacles, complete with pyrotechnics, light shows, and walk-on songs to hype up the rowdy, boozy crowds who flock in the thousands to see (mostly) overweight men throw miniature arrows at a wall.
“What Barry Hearn has done,” darts historian Patrick Chaplin says, “is that he has brought razzmatazz to the sport so that ‘going to the PDC darts’ is more of a social occasion, a night out with the lads/girls rather than a meeting of darts aficionados or genuine fans.” Chaplin, who wrote his PhD dissertation in the social history of the game, believes “darts is spreading across the globe” because of Hearn.
And the booming calls from Bray and others have become an integral piece of the razzmatazz, or “shebang,” as Bray calls it. “You try to make it exciting, get the crowd up for it. You can make a poor game sound very good. Similarly, you can a very good game sound poor.” But it’s the 180 that gets the biggest roar out of refs. “It’s very special. It’s the top score, so you make it very special.”
The calls are critical to the sport’s pageantry, but the referees also have their score-keeping duties to keep track of. Not only do they have to know darts math (explained in detail here), but refs have to simultaneously add up the score of a three-dart run while subtracting it from a player’s overall score as they race to check out by reaching zero. As an example, Bray uses a player who has 200 points left: “He can go triple-20, triple-11 and go for something else.” If the player asks Bray what he’s got left, Bray has to subtract 93, the score the player’s got on the dart board, from 200. “I can look at it and say 107 (is left). I’ve taken it off his score. When he throws his third dart, say he hits another 20. Now I’ve got to re-add that back and 113, that’s what he’d score.” And while Bray would call 113, he has to remember the player has 87 points remaining.
Veering back and forth between adding and subtracting without mixing up the numbers can be hard, “especially when you’re standing in front of 15,000 people in the Premier Leagues, and millions of people around the world live, and you’ve got to get it right,” says Bray. It doesn’t help that darts matches move at a brisk pace, either. “A lot of people think that being a darts referee is reasonably easy,” he says. “If you put them in that situation, it’d be interesting to see what they do.”
As the PDC has expanded internationally, so has Bray’s name recognition. He just came off a tour in Korea and the Philippines, and is off to Japan soon. He says it’s “absolutely terrific” that he’s been able to make a career shouting numbers as the game has expanded internationally. As an integral part of the spectacle, Bray’s calls have helped grow the PDC to where is it now. In 1990, the world BDO champion made £24,000; this year’s PDC world champ, Michael Van Gerwen, won £500,000 as part of the tour’s £14 million total prize fund. “The top lads are millionaires,” he says, which would have been inconceivable in his throwing days 20-30 years ago. “This is life-changing.”
Prior to becoming the voice of darts, Bray was an everyman, much like the game’s early stars. But since his unexpected foray into officiating, he has only been afforded more lucrative opportunities to display his vocal chops. Bray’s now getting work as a voice actor, doing commercials for Captain Morgan and trailers for The Conjuring. He’s also in the children’s animated show The Land of Sometime. The pageantry of darts, including Bray’s vocal contributions, has been essential to its newfound prominence in the world of televised sport, but the 180 call hasn’t only propelled the PDC to new heights. It has reshaped Bray’s life. “It fell in my lap. I had no aspirations, not even thought to do voice stuff at all. None whatsoever,” he says. And now? “It’s part of my career.”
Nick Dunne is a journalist who writes about culture, sports, and sometimes both at the same time.