The Open – Time For Sky Sports

22nd January 2015

I found myself discussing The Open’s television rights on twitter earlier today.  This got me thinking a little more about the merits of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and the most obvious alternative Sky Sports.

The current United Kingdom (UK) television contract for The Open expires after the 2016 Championship that is to be played at Royal Troon next year.  The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that Sky Sports may be close to securing the next set of rights to The Open which in turn has started a debate that shows no signs of abating.  Some believe a confirmatory announcement may even be just a few weeks away.

Firstly I should point out that it is very difficult to draw firm conclusions on this matter without knowing the sums offered by all of the interested broadcasters and also having an idea of the likely viewing figures that each channel will attract with it’s coverage.  Such data is of course not in the public domain.

Recent renewals have seen The R&A increasingly have to walk a tightrope when considering The Open’s highly prized UK broadcasting rights.  On the one hand, do they seek to maximise television coverage and publicity for their premier event hoping this will encourage interest and participation.  Or on the other, do they choose a partner willing to pay the contract’s full market rate, thus enabling them to increase investments into the development of the game both at home and around the world.  What’s best ? High exposure to the public whose viewing (and subsequent participation) is still voluntary versus lower potential TV figures but the cash to allow focussed investment in clubs, communities and golfers.

The above debate boils down to the merits of the free-to-air BBC and the paid-for alternatives, Sky Sports or potentially the newer BT Sport.  The BBC clung onto the rights at the last review with little more than history and potential viewers to offer The R&A.

The BBC have covered The Open forever – since 1955 to be precise.  Peter Alliss, the voice of golf in the UK, has commentated on it since 1961 and has enjoyed the lead role since 1978.  We also shouldn’t forget the excellent job the Corporation does on the radio via their Radio 5 Live channel – not that this is under threat here.  A professional job can be guaranteed but with their coverage of sport rapidly declining, largely due to budgetary constraints, it must be coming less attractive for them. Likewise it isn’t easy for viewers to build a rapport with presenters and analysts who nowadays show up in their living rooms just once a year.

BBC At The Open

Hazel Irvine and Peter Alliss lead the BBC’s Open coverage 

What is currently unclear is just how hard the BBC are fighting for The Open.  Surely they can’t expect the R&A to again hand over the rights for a pittance when other organising bodies continue to enjoy lottery wins for their sport’s contracts.  What can not be denied is that the BBC have allowed golf to drift away from their schedules over the last 10 years despite the UK enjoying an unprecedented group of world class players, almost for the first time in modern history.  Losing the rights may also help them deal with the Peter Alliss question – how long should he go on and who can replace him ?

Sky have increasingly become a very credible threat to the BBC’s historic pre-eminance.  Their week in, week out coverage of both the European Tour and the US PGA Tour is admirable and of the highest quality.  They also now enjoy live rights to the three other golf Majors, The Masters, The US Open and The US PGA.  When one adds in the experience they have of covering other sports there can no longer be any question as to their credentials to manage The Open.  The UK arrangement for The Masters may prove to be an interesting template for The R&A to adopt, with Sky taking the lead role but the BBC benefitting from highlights and some weekend live coverage.

BT Sport can’t be totally discounted.  They have ‘poached’ Premiership Rugby, Premiership Football, FA Cup Football and Moto GP coverage from Sky and the BBC in recent years and are said to have bid hard for the US PGA Tour rights at their last review.  As a developing sports broadcaster in the UK they would be very keen to secure The Open given half a chance.  However, this contract renewal may be too early for them to be a serious contender but their involvement will no doubt have kept Sky honest during this latest tender process.

The R&A is often portrayed as an out of touch lawmaker and as simply a gentleman’s club but it has grown impressively in recent times.  Commercial activity at The Open has developed greatly, firstly under Sir Michael Bonallack and more recently under the leadership of Peter Dawson.  The retirement later this year of the latter is a further complication here too.  Dawson may not want to go out with such a big decision and no doubt new Chief Executive Martin Slumbers will not be looking forward to dealing with the potential aftermath.

So just how important is free-to-air coverage to the game of golf in the UK ?  Many commentators believe it is of critical importance.  Look at the recent victory of Lewis Hamilton over Rory McIlroy at the 2014 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards as evidence of the need for more exposure and presence on terrestrial television they say.  If people don’t watch it they don’t know about it.  The complete removal of golf from mainstream television would be disastrous they believe, echoing the words of many in the cricket world which has experienced such a move.  People will stop playing and new players will fail to emerge without Rory to inspire them like Seve did their father and grandfathers they argue.

My view is that The R&A should hand the rights over to Sky.  If golf is reliant on just four days of golf on the BBC every year for its future success then something is very badly wrong.  Whilst I can see the link between terrestrial TV coverage and participation I am not persuaded it is that significant.  Snooker and bowls are on the BBC a lot but I have no intention of seriously taking up either.  I believe the results would be greater if the R&A took Sky’s cash and invested it in a focussed way into the game.  By involving the National Unions and the Professional Golfers Association, and with local advertising, subsidised club memberships and school coaching schemes could be offered at a much higher level than currently.

Golf has many more important issues to overcome to increase its popularity than the need to cling onto the BBC.  Many of these need funds to enable them to be fully realised.  Getting more women and children playing, making the game quicker (perhaps with more 9-hole courses), subsiding public / council-owned courses, helping old fashioned private clubs become more customer facing and developing new formats that attract new players all quickly spring to mind.

It is time for change.  I think Sky deserve a crack at it given their 365 day a year loyalty to the sport.  They have earned it.  I am also sure the additional funds generated can help the R&A to make more of a difference and grow the game.  I don’t see what The R&A have to lose – the contracts are normally only short-term so if it doesn’t prove beneficial then they can go back to the BBC, ITV or Channel 4 if they want at the next review.  Personally I doubt they will need to.

ME.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.

Rory McIlroy and the BBC’s 2014 SPOTY Award

15th December 2014 

Rory McIlroy’s unparalleled sporting achievements and friendly personality should have made him a certainty to be crowned the BBC’s 2014 Sports Personality Of The Year (SPOTY) at last night’s Award Show in Glasgow.  To win two Major Championships in succession, to name just his main achievements this year, and not win is astonishing to me.

What was equally surprising was the number and share of votes cast.  Of the 620,932 votes cast – which doesn’t appear to be that many when one considers the millions watching on TV – Hamilton secured 209,920 (33.8%) with McIlroy ‘only’ receiving 123,745 (19.9%).  This was therefore not a close contest between the two outstanding candidates.

Lewis Hamilton SPOTY 2014

Lewis Hamilton – 2014 SPOTY Winner 

I do not wish to ignore the achievements of the winner Lewis Hamilton who is clearly a superb racing driver – albeit one in my eyes without a particularly endearing personality.  His decision to turn up with Roscoe his dog on the night and the inappropriate plug for his girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger’s new musical being indicative of his lack of self-awareness.  This year, as is often the case in Formula 1 (F1), he clearly benefitted from a superior Mercedes car and as such his competition was essentially limited to his ‘team mate’, Nico Rosberg.  If Lewis had won the F1 World Championship driving a Marussia or Sauber car then perhaps there may have been a discussion to be had.  It was essentially his or Nico’s to lose from the first race.

So why didn’t the British public vote for Rory and what does this say about the SPOTY Award and more importantly golf in the United Kingdom ?  The whole debacle has raised a number of questions.

1) Why didn’t the British public vote for Lewis rather than Rory despite knowing the former had a technological edge over all but one of his very small number of competitors ?

2) Why didn’t they appreciate the magnitude of Rory’s achievements and the level of competition he faced, which were exceptional to anyone that knows golf and sport ?

3) Could or should the BBC have done more to emphasise the extraordinary achievements of Rory in their golf summary ?  Should the UK golfing community have shouted more about the exceptional year Rory has had ?  Is golf’s PR good enough ?

Rory McIlroy SPOTY 2014

Rory McIlroy – 2014 SPOTY Runner Up 

4) Did complacency set in.  I voted for Rory but how many golf fans watching didn’t bother ?  The golfing fraternity has been enraged today but could we all have done more to whip up the votes last night ?

5) Does the timing of the SPOTY awards play in to the hands of other sports.  F1 certainly appears to have out performed most sports over the years.  The F1 season reaches its climax just a few weeks before the show whereas the Major Championships in golf are all done and dusted by August.

6) Does the voting options of phones and online suit the younger generation and therefore more fashionable sports like F1 ?  Is this further evidence of golf becoming an older person’s retirement sport ?

7) Is the vote indicative of a game in real decline in the UK with golf club membership levels falling and the various authorities struggling to turn the tide ?  Is this another wake up call ?  Is golf fast becoming a minority sport in the UK ?

8) Is the lack of golf on terrestrial TV a problem ?  Sky’s coverage is superb but if no one is watching then interest and ultimately participation must start to decline.  F1 despite selling their full rights to Sky has still retained a good foothold on the BBC too.  I called for the R&A to sell The Open rights to Sky as soon as possible after the result last night but this may ultimately prove counter-productive in the long-term.

9) Should the British public be left to decide matters such as SPOTY or would a judging panel supported by a public voting process ensure some proper quality control ?  It is of course easy (and unfair) to blame the general public for their ignorance but the fact that Paul McGinley was golf’s only SPOTY winner on the night, in a category that frankly he isn’t in any way qualified for, suggests that using a judging panel may also not be the answer.

10) Has the SPOTY award passed its sell by date ?  The BBC has next to no sports coverage nowadays and therefore increasingly struggles to showcase it.  The segment on cycling and the Tour de France’s Le Grande Departe – arguably the sporting highlight of 2014 – was pitiful last night.  Doesn’t British sport deserve something better than this increasingly dated programme ?

12) Is it time for Sky – now the real home of UK Sports broadcasting – to come up with a more compelling and credible award / show, whose recipients can stand up to the toughest scrutiny ?

Rory generously appears to have taken the defeat on the chin but who would blame him if he made his excuses next time a SPOTY invite comes his way.  I wouldn’t.

In summary a lot of questions but not too many answers.  If golf can produce a superb role model like Rory McIlroy and he has a stellar year but still misses out on the top SPOTY award one has to assume something is wrong somewhere.  Here’s hoping McIlroy adds this minor setback – after all he is not short of awards this year – to his motivational armoury for the 2015 season and well and truly shows the wider British public just how good he is.

ME.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.