Nick Bonfield reflects on The BBC's decision to quit its live Open Championship contract as Sky Sports prepares to take over from 2016
What a difference a few months can make.
When The R&A announced its decision to award live Open Championship broadcasting rights to Sky Sports from 2017, thereby ending its 60-year association with the BBC, the backlash was stern, unyielding and somewhat short sighted from a wide cross section of the golfing community.
‘But I grew up watching Peter Alliss, he’s a legend’; ‘What about all the adverts!’; ‘How can The R&A do this – participation will tumble’; ‘Murdoch is a pig’ were some of the comments from the naysayers and BBC stalwarts as The R&A was subjected to torrents of abuse for a decision that, objectively speaking, made a great deal of sense.
The truth is that we don’t know what the impact on participation figures will be. The other truth is that, without any meaningful data, it’s a useful shield to hide behind for all those pro-BBC campaigners who fail to understand both modern media, and the fact that exposure to The Open will increase dramatically via publicity on bbc.co.uk/sport and skysports.com – the two biggest sports websites in the UK – live coverage, prime-time terrestrial highlights and radio.
The notion that people won’t take up the game because they no longer have the opportunity to flick on the television and be inspired to pick up a golf club is frankly absurd.
That may have been the situation 40 years ago – before the advent of the internet, when television and newspapers were the only source of exposure to the sport – but today’s landscape is markedly different.
Anyhow, I digress, and the salient point to note here is that general feeling was certainly pro-BBC when the initial announcement was made in February. After today’s announcement that the BBC has quit its contract and won’t be the live-broadcasting partner at Royal Troon next year, the situation couldn’t be more different.
When we broke the news of Sky’s involvement in February, our social media channels were awash with criticism for The R&A. When we broke today’s news, not one person spoke up in defence of the BBC.
Many of those former pro-BBC campaigners were converted following the BBC’s pitiful coverage of this year’s Open Championship. On the final day, we didn’t see live golf until 1:45pm – six hours after play began. Even members of the Golf Monthly team who were previously strongly opposed to the move were forced to concede that a) it wasn’t acceptable and b) Sky wouldn’t have made the same mistake.
Today’s announcement is a fitting conclusion to an era of underwhelming and underprioritised Open coverage from the BBC. The ship that’s been sinking for the best part of 15 years is now fully submerged below water.
Its desire to leave its contract a year early says two things to me: 1) It’s coming to an end anyway, why should we bother and 2) We can’t do a better job than Sky. The truth is the BBC can’t get remotely close. I also find it somewhat discourteous of the BBC to have given The R&A such a headache while trying to bed in a new Chief Executive following the retirement of Peter Dawson.
While I understand the frustration with adverts and the reverence of broadcasters like Peter Alliss and Ken Brown (who should have been afforded a proper send off at St Andrews – surely BBC executives knew this was in the pipeline) Sky’s coverage is first-class.
More importantly, Sky has shown a dedication to golf in recent years and a desire to innovate. Do any of those statements apply to the BBC’s golf coverage? Have they for the last 15 years?
It’s not as if the BBC doesn’t have the money; it’s simply a question of prioritisation. Don’t forget the organisation paid more than £200m for Match of the Day football highlights and chose not to bid for live Open rights.
It’s a shame that the era of live terrestrial Open coverage has come to an end, particularly for license fee payers who can’t afford Sky Sports.
But we all have choices to make in life. The BBC, unfortunately, has chosen to do the bare minimum, while Sky has taken the completely opposite path. No one should be able to rest on their laurels in today’s day and age.