Written by Media, Sport

The Open Goes to Sky

As has been widely anticipated in the press, today saw news that Sky Sports has won a five-year contract beginning in 2017 to broadcast The Open golf tournament exclusively live. The BBC will have a two hour 8pm-10pm highlights package.

Sky is said to be paying twice as much as the BBC, and they will no doubt throw loads of resources at the coverage. Of course viewers will get advertising as well, but those who find Peter Alliss a little “long in the tooth” will be happy.

The downside is that one of the only remaining golf tournaments on free-to-air television is gone. All that is left is the final two days of The Masters (Sky having all four days after an F1-style sharing agreement was reached a couple of years ago).

From my perspective, I’m not too bothered about golf per se. I don’t play it. I’ll watch it if it’s on, but when The Open is played, I tend to prefer to be outside myself enjoying the summer rather than holed up in my living room with the curtains drawn to avoid sun causing glare on my TV.

But while this deal offers a nice cash injection to the R&A, it’s really short-term thinking to remove a sport from national coverage when it’s in decline.

With the greatest will in the world, two hours’ highlights on BBC2 when anyone who cares already knows the result, is of little relevance.

Since I last wrote about this subject, when rumours mounted that live coverage of The Open would be leaving free-to-air TV, Sport England has released the full results of the most recent sweep of its Active Sport survey with the full year results up to and including October 2014.

So I’ve updated the chart I published previously, which shows at least once a month participation in sport:

Specifically it shows that the percentage of the population who play golf has fallen from a high of 3.73% (2007/2008 – towards the end of Tiger Wood’s unparalleled reign over the sport), to just 2.57% in the latest sweep. To be clear, Sport England reports that this is a statistically significant decrease. Indeed that represents almost a third fall in people playing the game.

Hiding your sport behind closed doors wouldn’t seem to be the most sensible thing to do.

Notably at the weekend, Lee Westwood was reporting the impending deal as being “an absolute disgace.”

“I wouldn’t have got into golf if it wasn’t for watching Nick Faldo win the Open in 1987. I would watch every minute of the coverage, and you want today’s kids to have the same opportunity. The BBC is doing golf no favours at all by letting the Open go.”

I’ll remind you again that Lewis Hamilton beat the more deserving (IMHO) Rory McIlroy, almost certainly because the average man or woman in the street has perhaps caught a bit of F1 on television. Frankly, you’ll be doing well to see much of McIlroy.

Recently I heard Kevin Pietersen on the radio talking about the success of Australia’s Big Bash Twenty20 cricket tournament. He was enthused about how well the league is doing, and how the franchise system works.

I’d suggest that the reasons for it’s success are less to do with the franchise system (which works well for players getting big paydays of course), and more to do with the tournament being broadcast on the free-to-air Network 10 channel is Australia.

I would humbly suggest that the ECB could re-jig the domestic Twenty20 tournament as much as it liked, but unless there’s some way to watch games live on free-to-air TV, the long-term decline in cricket participation will also only continue. It’s down nearly 20% since the Sport England survey began in 2005/6 – and yes there is a small uptick this year, but it’s not statistically significant. Sky, remember, won exclusive rights to Test cricket in 2006. And highlights – particularly for something like Twenty20, are fairly worthless in the scheme of things.

Rugby Union is the next sport that should be taking some notice. The spread of availability of rugby seems a reasonable combination of free-to-air and pay TV. The Six Nations is free on the BBC, and the World Cup is free on ITV. ITV/ITV4 has highlights of the Aviva Premiership, while BT Sport has live coverage. BT Sport and Sky share rights to the inaugural European Rugby Champions’ Cup, and Sky shows England’s autumn internationals, with the BBC having other home nations coverage and highlights of the England games. Finally there is also BBC Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland coverage of the Pro12 (formerly Celtic league), often on the red button.

But rugby too has to be careful. The most recent Sport England Active People survey results show 0.59% of the population playing rugby at least once a month. That’s down from a high of 0.76%.

So it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Six Nations contract next time around. Sky or BT may offer more money, but as a regulator, is it in your interests, to maximise your revenues today, or think about the future of your sport tomorrow? It feels more of today’s regulators are only considering the former.

And one further thought. Should sports who choose to remove free-to-air coverage of their events still be in receipt of grants from bodies like Sport England? According to their most recent accounts, they award close to £300m of lottery and exchequer money to support the take-up of sport by more people (which in turn improves the health of the population and lowers costs to the NHS).

Is your sport deserving of these funds if they’re making it harder for young people to watch top flight action?