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.

  • markyboy19

    I have responded to a few people online recently so have lifted this from my Disqus profile:
    Firstly I completely and wholeheartedly feel that Golf and The Open will be
    better served by Sky, the current coverage they have of golf including all 3 of
    the other majors and The Ryder Cup is second to none. The technology, the
    commentary team, their marketing expertise and marketing budget all show the
    BBC up for their now amatuerish approach to sport (why send Michael Vaughn to
    cover the Masters! honestly!). The BBC is under increasing budgetary pressure (which is ridiculous given the amount they get from the license fee)
    but the decision has been made at the top levels of the BBC that sport is no
    longer a top priority of the British public, therefore they will not (cannot?)
    invest the money required to keep pace with commercial broadcasters in this
    space.

    The examples touted of famous golfers and amateur golfer alike,
    watching their heroes walk the fairways in days gone by on the BBC are great,
    but that is where the BBC commentary team and coverage is stuck. But similarly
    how many youngsters took up the game because of watching Tiger Woods play golf on Sky *raised hand*. Golf has an identity crisis at the moment, vast
    swathes of the British public associate golf with dreary (posh?) old men rambling on about “Colonel Mustard-McMurtrey’s gout”, the good old days, when there
    were no need for gym routines and crowd enthusiasm consisted of the proper golf
    clap and nothing else; now I wonder what could possibly give British public
    that impression? Was the BBC’s decision not to ask Peter Aliss to step down a
    factor in the decision? who knows, perhaps? Yes there are adverts on Sky, but if that means that we dont have to listen to Sir Peter’s ramblings on the flora and fauna of the surrounding area and wherever else his mind wanders off to, is that really such a bad thing? (Yes the man is a national treasure and greatly respected but his time to step down was long ago im afraid)

    Golf needs to embrace modernity, it needs a jolt forward we need
    to reach out to all walks of life to join our sport and need to let our guard
    down a bit without losing the heart of the game. I’m looking at the success of
    Darts on Sky and thinking, this was a pub game, I remember seeing the coverage
    of the Darts at Lakeside on BBC and everyone in the room falling asleep, watch
    it now on Sky and try it! I know we don’t want to encourage the sometimes
    loutish behaviour at the darts on golf courses but, the fact is people now love
    the darts, including vast numbers at my club and loads more people are watching
    because its fun! Sky have helped create this, I know a different tact is needed
    for golf, but perhaps not too far away though; looking at the Phoenix open,
    500,000 through the gates for a standard tour event? People attend because it
    is not the stuffy uptight atmosphere that is so sadly associated with golf by
    so many in this country.

    Sky’s advertising budgets will promote The Open all year long and will reach those that currently tune in for Football, Darts, Rugby, Cricket etc etc whether at home or in the pubs, we need to reach those to grow our game again and like it or not those
    sports are on Sky, so they have a captive audience of sports fans, not a
    scattergun approach to 60 million that simply don’t tune in. Looking at the
    viewing figures from last year, The Open did not make it on to the top 30 most viewed programmes on the BBC last year**, so how can anyone say that the BBC is doing a good job of promoting the game in compared to Sky who have helped make the Ryder Cup to become the 3rd most watched sporting event in world sport? The money that Sky give to the R&A will be spent on growing the game, but Sky themselves have a self-serving reason to help grow the game, the more
    participation in the game, the more their viewing figures, subscriptions and
    advertising revenues climb, it makes no sense for Sky to invest £75m in The
    Open and not to try and promote it to as many people as possible. This is a
    business at the end of the day, this is an acquisition that needs to be
    invested in to retain the maximum yield, that means growing the game!

    I hope this decision serves as somewhat of a warning shot to the
    game of golf, the R&A is changing, it is now moving forward; the change at
    the helm should signal a new way of thinking for golf and that sticking with
    the status quo and the “old boys club” mentality is no longer the way forward, radical change is needed and this should signify that change is coming and it should not be feared.

  • Robin Harbinson

    I was in St Andrews (Open venue 2015) at the weekend and nobody I spoke to thought it was a good idea. I think it is an awful decision as the option to watch golf uninterrupted by Ads is always a bonus. Will the R&A try to control the amount of advertising? or will Sky voluntarily reduce it? I think not. Though by all accounts Sky got a bargain as Fox apparently paid much more for the US Open.

    Does anybody have statistics about increased membership or enquirers at GB golf clubs during or immediately after the open? That would be interesting. I think the reasons membership is falling is mostly anecdotal and little research has been done to confirm peoples opinions.

  • Alan

    Also disagree. The R&A having more money will not make the game quicker, less frustrating or cheaper for the average person to get started.
    Whereas greater exposure and publicity will encourage more people to take up the challenge to overcome the frustrations (at least some of the time) to get the unique rewards that our sport offers.

  • Yeti owner

    Completely disagree, this guff about golf taking too long is nonsense. From leaving home to getting back is probably just over 5 hours. I have friends who think of nothing of travelling half way across the country week in and week out to watch their favourite football teams and 5 hours to them is nothing, more like 8 to 10 hours for merely watching a game of 90 minutes!.

    As to the cost, well we tallied it up one day in the local boozer and they spend nearly twice what I do on golf following football. They play in a society occasionally and would play more if they didn’t work and football had a shorter season!!! But they do play in the summer break but obviously don’t join a club for that short time.

    Also interestingly enough they were saying they much prefer the Beeb cover of UK golf on TV than Sky (though I might disagree on that) but I’ll miss the Beeb team.