golf

Sporting Disdain

There’s a major sporting occasion that has been getting underway this week and climaxes at the weekend. It’s in Europe this year, and it features teams of individuals who normally spend much of their time competing against one another in an individual capacity.

I’m very excited about it.

Yes, it’s the UCI Cycling Road Championships in Innsbruck. 

What? You didn’t think I was talking about the Ryder Cup did you? Because somehow, the Ryder Cup is the major sports competition that leaves me coldest of all sports competitions.

I can’t really easily rationalise my antipathy. It’s no use saying that it’s a competition played by millionaires, because so is top-flight football. Or tennis. And it’s not just because I’m not really interested in golf. The sport in itself is harmless even if I’m not a fan.

In many respects it should be a go-to competition for me. It’s Europe v the US, and that’s an interesting match-up. Unlike some people in this country, I do feel European. 

I suspect part of my problem is the corporatisation of the competition (I realise that I’ve just made up a word). The high end sponsors; the ludicrous clothing (that applies to all golf clothing incidentally); the sheer number of chefs v cooks (more anon); the interminable selection criteria discussions; and the bonhomie which I just find a bit false. (I agree that many of these are also applicable to every British and Irish Lions Tour).

Re the cooks v chefs points. Can we just all agree that it’s ridiculous that a team of twelve should require both a captain, and no fewer than five further vice-captains? These all for players each of who already have trusted lieutenants in their caddies. As far as I can see, it just means we can see pictures of the various captains swanning around on their golf carts.

I think my overall disdain comes from this being a sport that in the main is not a team game. These players compete week in and week out against one another regardless of nationality. Then the Ryder Cup comes around every couple of years and everyone gets excited.

But my disdain is also for golf in general. I can’t get excited for a sport that’s done its level best to remove itself from free-to-air television screens while at the same time, suffering a precipitous fall in participation. It has taken a money-at-all-cost approach to developing the sport, meaning that fewer people play. (See also cricket.) Only today, Sky announced an extension in the UK of its coverage of the European Tour including the Ryder Cup. In the meantime, there is precisely zero live golf on free-to-air television with the sole exception of the final two days of The Masters on the BBC.

It’s not just the Ryder Cup. I have similar issues with the Davis Cup in tennis. It’s hard to explain, but I find the attendant jingoism unsavoury – at the same time generally enjoying other international team sports like football or rugby.

It’s not as though I like every sport in the world. I’m indifferent to most fighting sports, and despite once enjoying it a bit, now find F1 tedious in the extreme. Many Olympic sports, I’ll only spend time with at the Olympics. But for many other sports, I can at least enjoy them if presented with them, despite not actively seeking them out. Yet somehow the Ryder Cup jars with me. I will actively avoid watching it.

In the meantime over on the BBC and Eurosport, I shall be eagerly watching to see who becomes the Cycling World Champion in the men’s and women’s races on a hilly Innsbruck course. That’s my weekend sorted!

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?

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.