Golf Monthly editor Mike Harris explains why he thinks the Open TV rights moving from the BBC to Sky will be good for golf in the long-term

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In a week where the two biggest names in golf – Rory and Tiger – have been in the spotlight with court appearances and injury breakdowns it takes a really big story to grab the headlines and dominate the conversation on social media. The R&A’s decision to award the live TV rights to Sky has manged to do that. Here’s what I have written for the editor’s welcome letter that will be published in the forthcoming issue of Golf Monthly that will be published on February 19…

I write this editor’s letter the day after the news broke that from 2017 the Open Championship will be broadcast live exclusively on Sky Sports, thereby ending 60 years of BBC coverage.

The R&A’s decision to sell Open TV rights to a non-terrestrial broadcaster has predictably split opinion. Letters from readers and debates sparked on the GM forum and social media channels in the hours after the announcement showed there is no consensus on whether this is the right move for golf. Even golf’s two big newspapers, the Mail and the Telegraph, have taken opposite stances.

Detractors of the move are pointing out that as live coverage moves to paid TV, viewing numbers will fall and with that the decline in the number of people playing golf will accelerate as fewer people will be inspired to take up the game. However, in my view the reason the game is in decline has very little, if anything, to do with the level of free-to-air coverage.

Declining Participation

I believe declining participation is down to four things: an 18-hole round takes too long; it’s expensive; it takes a long time to reach a level where playing golf is enjoyable rather than frustrating and, lastly, golf’s image as being stuffy, rules-obsessed, not family-friendly and unwelcoming to newcomers puts people off. In the modern world where time is precious and other ways to spend one’s leisure time and money have never been wider, golf isn’t a compelling enough proposition.

The BBC could broadcast every single European Tour event, but if none of the above issues are addressed then golf isn’t going to reverse the trend of fewer people playing the game. My personal view is that the right decision has been made and the more you look at the detail of the new arrangement, the better the new Open TV deal is for golf.

Following The Open

In addition to first-shot to last-putt live TV coverage from Sky, the BBC will be broadcasting two hours of prime-time highlights every night, plus live coverage on Radio 5 Live. Non-Sky subscribers will be able to take out one-off subscriptions where they can watch individual days or all four online at Now TV. Add to that the free-to-access social media and huge online coverage, including live streams on theopen.com, and come 2017 there will never have been a more diverse range of ways to follow the Open Championship.

Money Talks

The extra cash Sky is prepared to invest undoubtedly made a difficult decision for The R&A much easier. The reported doubling of the annual rights fee from the current £7 million to £15 million could put an extra £40 million into the R&A’s coffers over the term of the deal.

Be in no doubt, the BBC could have afforded to match Sky, but chose not to invest. They seem happier pouring millions into things like football (£204m over three years for Match of the Day rights), celebrity presenters and me-too programmes. Their retreat from live broadcasting of golf has been going on for a long time and in the end left the R&A no option but to sign with Sky.

Judging Success or Failure

Those who have accused The R&A of ‘lining their pockets’ are either firing off glib comments, or are ignorant to where the money will be spent. Peter Dawson, The R&A’s chief executive, has pledged to significantly increase investment in growing the game in the UK and Ireland with the extra revenue from the TV deal. It is the impact that this spending will have that we should ultimately judge The R&A on.