On a Thursday night in late April, Marv Gakin carefully tilted back his dart and nailed a bullseye.
April is the one-month gap in between fall and summer dart league seasons, but Gakin's love for the sport can't keep the local dart player and two of his fall dart league teammates from the boards. His passion for the sport is not only shared with fellow players in Mitchell, it's shared across the entire state.
Gakin is one of 7,401 sanctioned dart players in South Dakota, the state with the largest number of sanctioned players in the nation, according to the National Dart Association.
"We're such a close-knit family, and we challenge each other every year to get better," said Gakin, who's been playing for 20 years. "There are a lot of great players around here, and the leagues are always really competitive."
According to Britt Bruner, vice president of D&E Music and Vending in Mitchell, a player must compete in a dart league that's recognized by the National Dart Association to become a sanctioned dart player. And there's no shortage of those respective leagues in Mitchell and surrounding communities.
In Mitchell alone, D&E Vending has a total of 10 leagues divided into two seasons, fall and summer. But their leagues stretch far and wide, as there are 60 total leagues organized under D&E scattered throughout surrounding area towns in communities as far north as Huron and as far west as Presho.
"The sport unites South Dakotans, and I'm so proud of how well our dart players fare at the state dart tournament," Bruner said. "Darts is one of South Dakota's best-kept secrets if you ask me."
While each league varies in team numbers, Bruner said the fall leagues draw the most teams. According to Bruner, there were 56 dart teams playing in D&E's Wednesday night fall league that started in 2018 and continued into this year. It's the largest league in Mitchell.
Impact on bars
If there's one industry that feels the economic impact of darts, it's local bars. Under the rules of league play, each team has a home bar, which can also sponsor the team. All teams play half of their season matches at their home bar, while the other half of the scheduled matches will take place at a handful of Mitchell bars that participate and have dart boards through D&E.
"While we have world-class dart players that play in our leagues, we have world-class bars that are a part of the dart community," Bruner said.
Bruner said a research study found an individual dart player spends on average $50 at the bar during a night of throwing darts, which includes the jukebox, food, alcohol and video lottery.
Bruner marvels at how strong the dart culture is in many smaller area communities and said the sport plays a vital role in bringing in steady profit on what otherwise would be considered a slow night.
"That's part of why I believe our Wednesday night league is so strong, because it's in the middle of the week and people can get out of the house and have fun throwing darts at a local pub," Bruner said.
Barb Johnson can attest to the impact darts has on her small-town Mount Vernon bar, which is connected to the gas station she's been operating for 11 years. After all, she partially credits darts for providing the spark to open Wild Westy's Bar in January of this year.
"I had a lot of local customers who played darts, and when I thought about opening the bar, they were all in," Johnson said. "Now that I have my own leagues, they don't always have to travel to Mitchell or other surrounding towns to play darts, so it's been great seeing the dartboards get used."
Through TNT Enterprises, a dart company out of Wagner under the umbrella of M.G. Oil, Johnson has been able to host three dart leagues out of her bar through her partnership with TNT.
Youth darts participation sees growth
As a former player who got his start shooting darts when he was a teenager, Nate Knuth became hooked.
Knuth is the dart league coordinator for the Music Services office in Sioux Falls, which is a division of M.G. Oil. He also serves as the director of the South Dakota state junior dart tournament in Oacoma.
Knuth has watched the sport of darts take off at the youth level over the past several years, and he believes that's the heartbeat of the sport's growth.
"It's one of those sports that keeps growing in the state, and I feel it's really important for the youth to have opportunities to play in tournaments and play competitively," said Knuth, a vital player in coordinating the first annual junior state dart tournament in 2014.
According to Knuth, there were 110 youth dart players competing in the 2014 junior state tournament, while last year's tournament drew in 210 youth competitors, nearly doubling its participants.
D&E has also joined the youth dart movement, as Mitchell has an organized youth dart league that spans from November to February. Bruner has seen steady growth in the youth league, which now has a total of 18 teams, the most he's had since organizing the league.
"It's great to see how enthused the kids continue to be every year," Bruner said. "They are the future of the sport, and I feel it's in good hands."
Technology innovations have also worked their way into darts, adding more growth to the sport.
Several years ago, dart manufacturers unveiled live remote play dart boards, which have small screens on the bottom of the board that allow for playing a match of darts against someone throwing at a bar in another state or country. With a simple internet connection, Knuth said a South Dakota dart player could be playing against a top-tier German dart player.
There are 13 vendors in South Dakota that offer dart leagues sanctioned by the National Dart Association, and the state dart tournament is where all of the sanctioned league teams and players converge. Players and teams that are a part of a sanctioned league are all qualified to register to compete in the six-day tournament. The state tournament rotates every other year from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, and Knuth said it's the largest state dart tournament in the nation.
According to Whitey Tolliver, TNT Enterprises manager, this year's 34th annual team state dart tournament in Sioux Falls saw 726 four-person teams, 587 doubles teams and 511 single players.
"We have some of the top ranked players in the world representing South Dakota, which helps the dart culture stay strong here," Tolliver said.
Rachel Kamuda, National Dart Association director of operations and tournament manager, said the talent level of South Dakota dart throwers stacks up well on the national level. South Dakota players and teams that compete in the state tournament automatically earn a trip to compete in the National Dart Association's international dart tournament in Las Vegas, which wrapped up on April 17.
"South Dakota has so many great players, and we are fortunate to have a state that is so passionate about darts," Kamuda said. "In fact, your state had a player that represented our Team USA in the Las Vegas tournament."
That dart player was Mitchell native Kyle Liddeke, who is now a professional dart player sponsored by L-Style, which is an international dart manufacturer. While his signature dart called "Lids" is now sold worldwide, it all started when he was a kid playing in D&E's Mitchell leagues. In 2018, Liddeke and his doubles partner Willard Bruguier, of Lake Andes, took first place in masters doubles at the National Dart Association international tournament in Las Vegas.
"Kyle has done Mitchell and this state so proud," Bruner said of Liddeke. "He's an example of what hard work and dedication can do for a passionate dart player."