Sale of British Open rights to Sky hard to justify as player numbers decline

Only hardcore fans who can afford to subscribe to pay-to-view will now have full access to the Open on television

Most TV viewers could watch Rory McIlroy winning the British Open at Hoylake last year, but from 2016, only Sky subscribers will have access to full live coverage. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Most TV viewers could watch Rory McIlroy winning the British Open at Hoylake last year, but from 2016, only Sky subscribers will have access to full live coverage. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

Nothing, apparently, is sacred any more. With one scribble of a signature, the exclusive television rights to the British Open – golf’s oldest and most revered championship – are to be signed away by the R&A, so terrestrial viewers will be denied live coverage from 2016 onwards and, in one fell swoop, the prospective audience will be considerably reduced.

The R&A, custodians of the sport, are poised to jettison the BBC in favour of Sky Sports, whose insatiable appetite to add sporting treasures to its ever-growing programming is backed up by the ability to wave cheque books. In this case, though, money shouldn’t be everything.

White flag

It would seem that the BBC – which has held the rights to the Open for the past 60 years – waved a white flag in surrendering the live rights. Golf has become a less and less important aspect of the Beeb’s sporting coverage in recent years (losing the BMW PGA at Wentworth and being reduced to just the final two days of the Masters as Sky claimed full live rights to both), but the thought that the Open would be lost seemed most improbable. But it’s not so far-fetched after all.

Although Sky is believed to paying the R&A €13.3 million (£10 million) a year, an increase on the €9.3 million (£7 million) which the BBC paid on its current contract that runs until 2016, the umbrage taken by a number of golfers – among them Lee Westwood – is entirely understandable. For many youngsters, watching the Open on television was the reason for actually wanting to play the game.

In opting for a subscription channel to cover the championship live in its entirety, the R&A has, in my view, bogeyed.

At a time when the numbers playing golf are in decline, the sport in these parts is set to lose its greatest marketing asset and with it the capacity to go beyond the hardcore golf fans who can afford to subscribe to pay-to-view.

The R&A might point out that the additional money will be more than useful in aiding development of the sport in new territories, in eastern Europe, South America, Asia and Africa especially. But the fact is that the traditional strongholds of the sport – in the UK and Ireland, as well as the U S, where the USGA is the governing authority – are facing huge challenges to halt declining numbers, to retain existing golf club members and to attract newcomers to the sport. This is especially true of getting those under-30s to pick up a driver and, in John Daly parlance, grip it and rip it.

Numbers game

Everyone in the golf industry knows that the numbers game, the very essence of golf, is being lost. Here, the GUI and the ILGU in conjunction with the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI), have been as proactive as they can in trying to attract those who left during the worst of the economic recession to return to the club fold, and for others to take up the sport. But, like their counterparts in Britain and the US are finding, it’s proving to be a hard sell, not just because of the cost of membership but also due to an even more precious commodity: time.

This decision to take the British Open away from terrestrial television certainly won’t help in promoting the sport to a wider audience. Also, it takes away what was considered a natural right to watch one of the sporting world’s showpiece events. And, ironically, it comes at a time when golf’s return to the Olympics – in which the R&A played a major role – is set to broaden its global appeal.

The haemorrhaging of club members of the past decade in the UK and Ireland has been put down to a number of reasons. The economy is top of the list. The cost of equipment is also relevant. The time it takes to play – a full 18 holes can stretch beyond five hours – is another factor, especially to young working parents.

Pertinently, golf participation among 18-34-year-olds, the age when most people take up the game for the first time, has declined by 30 per cent in the past 20 years.

The BBC’s coverage of the British Open – from early-morning to late-evening without any ad breaks and with Peter Alliss’s dulcet tones – has been an institution for many golfers and for sports lovers generally, who first got to experience golf on television.

Fair play to Sky, which isn’t afraid to put its money into backing up its quest to conquer the sporting airwaves. But, this time, it would seem to be at a cost to the armchair golf fan. A highlights package on the Beeb is a poor substitute.

As former US president Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

On this one, the R&A seems to have done the next best thing.

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