THE sale of broadcasting rights for the Open Golf Championship to Sky Sports has been attacked as a “retrograde step”, with fears that it will damage the future of golf in Scotland.
The R&A, which organises the event, confirmed yesterday that, from 2017, Sky Sports will have exclusive rights to screen the Open in a deal thought to be worth in excess of £75 million.
The move ends 61 years of free-to-air coverage on the BBC, and prompted fears about the impact of such a loss.
Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, who chairs a cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on golf, said losing the world’s biggest golf tournament from the BBC to pay TV could see the event leaving St Andrews.
He said: “The Open should be on free TV. Golf needs the greatest exposure to new and existing fans. Giving the game to satellite television reduces the number of people who will see the essential sporting drama of an Open Championship.
“But such a move could herald wider changes. If money is now the be-all and end-all to the games administrators, the R&A, who says they will stay in St Andrews, may soon go elsewhere.
“The world game started in Scotland and our golf courses are internationally renowned. We market Scotland on the strength of golf.”
Mr Scott has lodged a question at the Scottish Parliament asking the government to meet the R&A to “press the importance of the Open Championship being available for everyone to see on terrestrial TV”.
Estimates show that last year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was worth £100m to the Scottish economy. The Open, to be played this July at St Andrews, brings tens of millions into the local economy.
The move is expected to deepen concerns about the “crown jewels” list of events protected for free-to-air broadcasting, though highlights will remain with the BBC.
The five-year deal from 2017 is believed to be worth more than double the current £7m-a-year contract with the BBC.
In an open letter published on the R&A website yesterday, its chief executive Peter Dawson insisted “numerous factors” were taken into account in the decision, and played down talk about the relationship between free-to-air viewing and participation.
“I recognise that this new broadcast model represents a significant change and I understand that change, particularly where it involves the BBC, is controversial.
“We have considered this new agreement extremely carefully and firmly believe that we have achieved the best result not just for the future of the Open but for golf as a whole.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has consistently argued for Scotland’s football matches to be added to the list of events that must be broadcast live on free-to-air television, and we agree that the Open Golf Championship and Ryder Cup should also be aired on terrestrial TV.”
Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis said that the company was “committed to taking coverage of the event to new levels”.
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