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Golf, Open to Offers

How will you be watching the Open action unfold this year? Well for the last few decades the dear old Beeb provided live TV coverage over the 4 days of competition and we took it for granted that it would always be there, but this year the live coverage will only be available to those of us who pay Sky TV to see the broadcast of golf’s oldest major.

Money talks and the R&A awarded the broadcast rights to Sky….and who can blame them? It’s a buyer’s market and Sky were prepared to pay the c£15m annually that the BBC couldn’t, or wouldn’t find. Naturally this caused uproar amongst the army of armchair golf fans who took the BBC’s Open coverage for granted but in a competition between the BBC and Sky there was always only going to be one winner; the revenue-driven giant versus the publicly-funded institution, hunger versus contentment, the need to expand versus the need to consolidate. This is the commercial golf world we live in folks, and we better get used to it.

But we should be careful about labelling Sky the Big Bad Wolf, because the BBC decided not to increase their offer of c£7m against Sky’s c£15m. The BBC could have offered more for the broadcast rights but they chose not to, favouring Match of the Day instead and paying c£200m for the privilege. Sometimes it’s not just about the money, it’s about where your priorities lie.

Peter Dawson who was R&A Chief Executive at the time said: ‘The new agreement will enable us to increase substantially our support for golf in the UK and Ireland’…it remains to be seen how the extra cash generated by this new deal will be rolled out to grass roots golf, but it is incumbent upon the R&A to invest in a demonstrable way.

Director of Sport at the BBC Barbara Slater has been criticised in some quarters for selling out when the bidding got too hot, but in reality she was just trying to balance the books, and she was under great pressure to do so; small consolation for loyal golf fans of the BBC I know. And what does the £145.50 annual licence fee entitle us to watch anyway? I doubt the small print ever guaranteed the BBC’s obligation to its licence fee payers to broadcast the Open in perpetuity.

So what can we expect from Sky TV; is the coverage going to be better? Well each round lasts the same time, the days play starts at the same time and finishes at the same time, so that’s not going to change. Royal Troon won’t be any better than it already is, the quality of play will be as good as always…you know where I’m going with this…if we pay significantly more for something are we not expecting an enhanced product? Albeit the live coverage starts at 6.30am when the first ball is struck and the broadcast will continue well after the days play is completed, but there are only so many words that can be spoken about a round of golf, and although the ad breaks are to be reduced in number, for now, the traditional jury is out.

Sky customers will argue that the coverage is better, the presenters are better, the analysis is better, but better than what? Possibly the truth of the argument is that the Sky broadcast platform has steadily been snapping up sports coverage right across the globe, and because it is now the main portal to watching sport from your armchair it is seen as the new standard, and people now are comfortable with it. It is perceived as the new norm and audience perception is a powerful thing. Troon Open flag

There is no love lost when it comes to money, but in reality who is the R&A expected to be loyal to..? Is it the BBC who has given decades of quality coverage to the public, exposure to the trophy courses and the R&A, or is it to the viewers themselves who have been used to watching 4 days live coverage of the Open as part of their inexpensive licence fee? Their principle loyalty must be to the game itself. Maybe it’s time for the BBC to become a commercial organisation, but that’s for others to debate.

I pose these questions safe in the knowledge that there are many imponderables but one certain result…that the millions of BBC viewers who were used to watching 4 days of uninterrupted live broadcast of the Open are going to have to settle for a lot less bang for their buck, and arguably even less if they feel they have no option than to subscribe to the pay-to-view media powerhouse Sky.

All sides have made a strong defence of their cases but the real losers are the BBC, because their brand recognition to sport and golf in particular is diminishing, and those viewers who do not have Sky. The winners are the R&A who have sold the Open for more money to support golf in the UK and Ireland, Sky TV and their Sports subscribers.

If I was in charge of a world-leading institution like the R&A, and it was my responsibility to get the best deal for it, I’d be tempted to take Sky’s offer; indeed some would see it as my duty. So we shouldn’t take a 5-iron to the R&A; we should accept that we live in a commercial world and go with it, or better still, go TO it (Troon). There’s nothing like a bit of live action after all.

Ps, as I post this my BBC text feed tells me that Big Monty has just completed his opening round and is sitting at Even par, not bad for a Sky pundit. See you in hospitality!


Colin Barrows

for CB Golf Marketing

14 July 2016

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