The Royal & Ancient (R&A) is reported to have sold the television rights of The Open Championship to Sky for £10m from 2016, thus bringing to an end 59 years of coverage from the BBC. No official statement has been made at the time of writing to confirm the reports which, given the criticism that the R&A and terrestrial broadcaster are likely to come in for, is hardly surprising.
The BBC is far keener to trumpet its new £204m deal to bring late night Premier League football highlights to our screens on Match of the Day until 2019. The decision to sacrifice The Open has been treated with shock and anger from golfers and golfing broadcasters alike, especially as the £10m deal appears so cheap in comparison to what Sky pays in other sporting fields. Former Arsenal star, Thierry Henry, receives a staggering £4m a year to act as a professional pundit on Sky’s televised, live Sunday football programme.
What becomes increasingly apparent each year is that BBC is no longer the natural TV channel of major sport and one wonders if its phenomenally well paid executives are even that interested in the subject. One only has to look at its Sports’ Personality of the Year award programme to realise just how little quality sport is still shown on the channel.
Its rugby coverage still retains the annual six nations tournament but all England’s matches before Christmas are the preserve of Sky as are the British & Irish Lions rugby tours. International test cricket vanished some time ago.
Those viewers who have grown up with the great British institutions of televised sport will recall with affection men such as Henry Longhurst with his unique and idiosyncratic golf commentary whilst also mourning the departure of other greats such as Harry Carpenter on boxing, David Coleman on athletics and football, Kenneth Wolstenholme on football, John Arlott on cricket and Dan Maskell on tennis.
Peter Alliss may well be approaching his dotage but his is still the most readily identifiable voice in televised golf. Sky is able to offer some great television shots but try and name some of its commentators? Bill McLaren defined rugby union on the BBC although only the keenest follower would be able to name Sky’s rugby front man.
And apart from a dearth of world class broadcasters Sky coverage reaches far fewer viewers. Many people will go down to a pub to watch live broadcast football and rugby but how many will do the same for golf? And how many pubs would even show it?
Rory McIlroy’s failure to sufficiently capture the viewing public’s imagination to win the 2014 Sports’ Personality of the Year after a stellar season capturing two majors clearly shows that fewer people are engaged with golf these days, surely even more reason for the BBC to have retained the Open and invested in the sort of technology available on Sky to enhance viewers understanding and enjoyment of the game.
Peter Alliss has been vocal about the decision, saying, ‘Hand on heart, I can’t not criticise the BBC. They are far and away the R&A’s biggest television client, so why haven’t they said to them: “You know, we’re struggling against the financial might of Sky but why don’t we also cover some of the other events you run, like the Amateur Championship and the Boys Championship and the Walker Cup?”’
But the BBC is not the only guilty party in this deal. If the R & A wants to encourage more young people to get involved in the game, especially with the downward spiral in those playing these days, it should appreciate that getting money in from Sky is not the only way of helping reverse the trend. Showing the top players compete on terrestrial television can do much to disprove the increasingly held perception that golf is purely the preserve of the old, affluent and snooty.
Lee Westwood, on hearing of the deal said that the BBC, ‘Was doing golf no favours. Look at the viewing figures for Sky compared to the BBC and you have to question this decision, especially when the number of golfers is dwindling. The R&A is at fault too. They are supposed to be the guardians of the game. But this seems to be money driven, with Sky willing to pay more.’
The Daily Mail was sufficiently moved before tend decision was made to ask its readers to write to Peter Dawson before he steps down as R&A chief executive, stating ‘I am writing to urge you not to move The Open Championship to satellite television. Keeping it on terrestrial TV is crucial to golf’s future. Please don’t make the mistake of alienating so many fans.’ But Dawson was clearly unmoved.
When the announcement is finally made the R&A will doubtless say in some carefully worded press release how Sky’s money will be made available to the grass roots of the game and help to get more people engaged whilst the BBC will inevitably come up with some mealy-mouthed politically correct statement of prudent house-keeping which will be seen by many as ironic, coming from a corporation that paid its staff £24m to move from London to its new headquarters in Salford.
But whatever the press releases say none will be able to disguise what is a very sad day indeed for British golf and an equally bad one for British broadcasting.