Don't ask Sandy Reitan if she gets the point. She does . . . but she's just a little weary of puns and barbs (oops) about her chosen profession.
Reitan, 34, is a professional dart player--not just any dart player, mind you, but the premier female darter in the United States and one of the best in the world. In her 10 years as a competitive darter, she has won it all, including the prestigious World Cup.
And before you start snickering too much, understand that she has also made a very handsome living at it, earning as much as $5,000 in a single afternoon for flicking those 26-ounce missiles. As a professional, the Anaheim-based Reitan travels to the four corners of the globe at no expense to herself; the tabs generally are picked up by her sponsors, Unicorn Darts and Lucky Strike Lights, or by tournament hosts anxious to have the top names on their bill (in April, for example, she and 15 other international stars of the game will be in Tokyo vying for $350,000 in prize money at a special invitational match, all expenses paid by the tournament).
As befits any top athlete these days, there are other perks, too, such as product endorsements and the "Sandy Reitan Signature Model dart, available for $14.95 at your better dart stores everywhere."
What we're talking about here is the dream of every sedentary, beer-bellied middle American alive--being a top star in a sport that requires absolutely no diet or physical conditioning, no expensive equipment or clothing, and whose arena generally is a smoke-filled neighborhood saloon packed with people swigging ale between burps.
That description is fairly accurate (except for those who reach Reitan's level and compete in grand ballrooms of major hotels), which makes it all the more mysterious why darts hasn't become the major sports passion of the average American, as it is for the average citizen of the British Commonwealth.
English stars of Reitan's magnitude rank with rock music luminaries and drag down upwards of a quarter-million quid a year. Of course, unlike here, darts in England, Australia and New Zealand is a major television sport, attracting more viewers than soccer (except during World Cup play).
Reitan and people such as Tom Fleetwood, founder and general secretary of the American Darts Organization, fervently believe that a full bloom of the sport in the United States is quickly approaching. Begun 11 years ago, the ADO now has more than 100,000 dues-paying members and total purses from sanctioned tournaments will top the $1.5-million mark this year for the first time.
And there is a growing belief that fans just might pay to attend those tournaments, just as they do in other parts of the world. Now, while upwards of 1,000 people will turn out for a major event, they are usually either participants or closely attached to participants.
Reitan was gratified to learn that a recent survey by Bull's Eye News magazine showed that, while fans weren't wildly enthusiastic about buying tickets for tournaments, her name was on top of the list of those they said they would pay to see.
One of the deterrents to larger public enthusiasm about the sport, she believes, is a lack of understanding of the rules, something she feels television could cure. "Most people think it's just a matter of hitting the bull's-eye and don't realize it's a lot more complicated than just that," she said.
The other mistake most beginners make, she said, is trying to throw the dart as they would a baseball. "When that doesn't work, they try lobbing it," she said, "which is also guaranteed to destroy any accuracy or consistency."
"It's a game of wrist and mind," she said, "of holding the dart at eye level, concentrating on the target and flicking the dart with your wrist."
The key to Reitan's success, she said, is that ability to concentrate, combined with a discipline that keeps her cool no matter how hot the going gets. And it gets pretty hot for her because everyone is shooting at her. "There are no easy rides for ranked players. No matter where I go, they're waiting for me and, naturally, they get up for the match . . . and the chance to knock off a world champion."
Sometimes she actually does get whipped, but not very often. She had a bad year in 1987, earning a little more than $13,000 in purses and winding up "only second" in the national rankings. While she offers no excuses, the ADO's Fleetwood does. "Her husband broke his hip and was laid up and it was pretty rough on both of them," said Fleetwood, who predicted that "she will be back as No. 1 this year; she's in top form again . . . shooting brilliantly."