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Fallon Sherrock throws during a match against Chris Dobey at the World Darts Championship on Dec. 27, 2019 in London.

Jordan Mansfield

Fallon Sherrock walked slowly toward the dart board high atop a giant stage at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena, waving shyly as the crowd roared rapturously and sang her name in unison.

Most of the 6,000 spectators were men and they’d jammed into this hockey arena on a cold Thursday night just to see Sherrock. Many were wearing blond wigs and black glasses in honour of their heroine and they all held their breath expectantly every time she threw one of her pink-feathered darts. Her opponent, Glen Durrant, faced so much grief that when he tried to claim afterward he didn’t think everyone in the arena wanted him to lose, a reporter laughed and asked: “Where were you feeling some support from? Because it seemed like 6,000 people were against you.”

Welcome to the Fallon Sherrock phenomenon, the newest sensation in sports. This 25-year-old single mom and one-time hair stylist has taken the darts world by storm since her remarkable run last December at the Professional Darts Corporation’s World Championships, a raucous Christmastime tournament in London’s Alexandra Palace that attracts 96 players, 85,000 spectators and a prime-time television audience. Sherrock became the first woman to win a round at the championships and then stunned everyone by nearly making it to the quarter-finals. Only four other women had ever played at the Ally Pally and none had won more than a couple of sets.

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Her performance made her an instant celebrity and drew international acclaim, including from tennis legend Billie Jean King who called Sherrock a “game changer.” She’s now been invited to exhibition matches across Europe and she’ll be among a select group of players competing at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the first time this summer as part of the PDC’s world tour.

And just to prove that her play last December was no fluke, Sherrock recently defeated more than 200 men to qualify for the U.K. Open next month and in Thursday’s televised match in Nottingham she earned a 6-6 draw with Durrant, a three-time world champion. “I never thought Fallon would take me to six each,” Durrant said. “But she’s had an amazing two or three months, and good luck to the girl.”

Sherrock is still trying to come to grips with her sudden fame. It wasn’t that long ago that she was juggling her playing career with cutting hair in a mobile salon near her home in Milton Keynes while caring for her five-year-old son Rory, who has autism. She is also coping with a kidney disorder. “I’m just buzzing with everything that’s gone on,” she said Thursday. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet how big it’s actually got. I just feel so proud of myself that I’ve made the game of darts massive and now everyone’s talking about it across the world.”

She’s been climbing the ranks of the women’s game for years and made it to the finals of the women’s world championships in 2015. But she’s now become a trailblazer and wants to see more equality for women in the game. “Us women can compete against the men if we just had more opportunities,” she said.

That still seems a long way off. Darts has always been seen as a male preserve, with its beer-swilling culture and laddish behaviour. The PDC only dropped its scantily-clad “walk-on girls” two years ago after pressure from broadcasters and, even now, its tournaments have frolicking cheerleaders in tight shorts. The women’s game has been largely left to the PDC’s weak rival, the British Darts Organisation, which is struggling to survive.

Sherrock enters the stage at the World Darts Championship.

Jordan Mansfield

But even at the BDO, women’s games rarely make it onto television and the prize money is paltry. Peter Wright collected £500,000, or $864,000, for winning the PDC World Championships in December, where all but two of the 96 competitors were men. A few weeks later Mikuru Suzuki won just £10,000 at the BDO’s Women’s World Championships.

“There is no physical or mental reason why a woman shouldn’t play darts as well as a man,” said Patrick Chaplin, who has been covering the game for more than 30 years and is considered its unofficial historian. Chaplin said women have been held back for years because of sexist attitudes.

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When Edmonton’s Gayl King became the first woman invited to play in the PDC World Championships in 2000, the reaction was fierce. “I don’t think a woman should be playing in a men’s tournament,” said King’s first-round opponent, Graeme Stoddart. ”All I can say is that it’s nice for her to come over from Canada. She can collect the first-round loser’s money and then go shopping in London.”

Sherrock, too, has encountered her share of abuse. Some of the worst came during the BDO Women’s World Championships in 2017, when she was subjected to cruel mocking online after her face swelled up because of medication she takes for her kidney disorder.

“The majority of men don’t feel comfortable playing ladies, especially ladies that can play,” said Lorraine Winstanley, 44, who is one of Britain’s top female players. She took up the game as a teenager while working in a pub in Buxton, south of Manchester, but she could only play when the men weren’t around. “It was very much a man’s pub that I worked in and I was itching to join their team and they went, ’No, we don’t have women in the team,’ ” she recalled. She got her chance when the team was a man down one night and they reluctantly asked her to fill in. “I said if I win you can’t drop me, and I won.”

Winstanley said Sherrock’s success has finally put the spotlight on the women’s game. “Hopefully there’s a bright future for us.”

There are signs the game is opening up. Just weeks after Sherrock’s ground-breaking run at the PDC World Championships, Lisa Ashton became the first woman to win a card for the PDC tour. Ashton beat out 500 players at the PDC’s qualifying school, all but 16 of whom were men, to claim one of the 20 spots for a two-year stay on the tour.

There’s also young talent rising up, such as 16-year-old Beau Greaves, who made it to the semi-finals of the BDO Women’s World Championships this year. And last year the PDC reserved two spots for women at the December championships, clearing the way for Sherrock and Suzuki to compete (Suzuki narrowly lost in the first round). Sherrock’s victories have increased calls for more women in the PDC events or a separate women’s tour.

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With darts soaring in popularity – it’s the second-most-watched sport on Sky TV after Premier League soccer – and prize money on the PDC tour doubling to £15-million since 2013, many people believe that including more women is inevitable. PDC chief executive Matt Porter doesn’t rule it out, but he argues that the women’s game needs to be developed at the grassroots first. “Just putting more women in the world championships won’t necessarily benefit women’s darts,” he said. “We need to increase the number of women playing at the bottom of the pyramid.”

Nonetheless, Porter acknowledged that Sherrock has upped the ante. “We didn’t perhaps anticipate the global media reaction that we got from Fallon winning,“ he said.

Lucy Ward, 28, is among the many young women now hooked on darts thanks to Sherrock. Ward plays darts recreationally with her boyfriend Tommy Derrock, 29, and they were both in Nottingham on Thursday to see Sherrock play. “She’s amazing,” Ward said. “She’s shown that if you can do it with the men, then you should do it with men.”

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