Is Golf Becoming as Invisible as Cricket?

According to a report in the Telegraph, the Royal & Ancient is considering whether or not they extend their 50 year broadcasting agreement with the BBC for future coverage of golf, or whether some or all rights go to Sky.

In reality, I suspect that this is a negotiating tactic to try to squeeze a bit more cash out of the BBC in the next rights round. But across the Atlantic, these rights go for eye-watering sums, and I dare-say there are some envious looks.

Let’s see. Most televised golf is already salted away on Sky Sports. Is the R&A suggesting that somehow, by losing free-to-air coverage of The Open, uptake of golf will improve?

Here are the figures from Sport England’s Active People survey:

I would suggest that golf isn’t exactly in the rosiest of health.

Look at the Ryder Cup. Yes there are free-to-air highlights, but it’s fair to say that live coverage is probably one of the jewels in Sky Sports crown. They throw everything at it. Rory McIlroy was one of the stars of Europe’s winning team in 2014.

And yet, when it comes to the public voting for Sports Personality of the Year, the much more deserving McIlroy gets outvoted by F1’s Lewis Hamilton. McIlroy may have won over one weekend live on BBC TV, but Hamilton was seen free-to-air over many weekends – many of them live. I’m not saying that’s the only reason Hamilton won (F1 fans ae probably more engaged in picking up their phones to vote than golf fans), but I suspect that most people’s affinity for McIlroy comes from his in-no-way-awkward Santander adverts, whereas they might have actually seen Hamilton driving a car.

This discussion comes in the week that the ECB renewed its current exclusive cricket deal with Sky for another two years. This is great news for Sky, but terrible news for cricket. The sport is becoming incidental. Tennis, Cycling, Swimming, Athletics, Snooker, NFL, and Darts even, get more exposure on free-to-air TV than cricket.

An hour of highlights on Channel 5 isn’t going to get any 12 year old off the sofa to knock a ball about with his or her friends in the park. Indeed with the slug-fest that is IPL disappearing from ITV4 off to Sky Sports from this season, I don’t think that there’ll be any live cricket coverage of any sort on any free-to-air TV channel anywhere.

Yes that chart above shows a slight blip in cricket uptake, but it’s still lower than it was just after Channel 4 lost cricket rights to Sky.

I’m always amazed at how short-termist some sports bodies are with regards to this sort of thing. Yes, there’s a big cheque on the table today. But how easy do you think it will be tomorrow when a new generation of fans hasn’t been brought up with the game? And you might find sponsors aren’t writing quite as big cheques either.