MONEY from the new television deal for the Open Championship will be used to help golf deal with participation levels, even though the R&A is confident taking the game’s biggest event on this side of the Atlantic away from terrestrial television will not also have a detrimental effect in that respect.
Speaking following the announcement that the live rights for The Open will switch from the BBC to Sky Sports in 2017 at the start of a five-year contract with the satellite broadcaster, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson played down fears it would harm participation.
Nonetheless, he vowed that “increased resources” will be ploughed by the governing body into a new project that will try to come up with answers as to why golf is in the midst of a membership crisis and what can be done to make the sport more appealing.
“I think it is very difficult to be definitive about the effect of free-to-air broadcasting versus paid for broadcasting on participation,” said Dawson in addressing one of the main concerns expressed over live coverage of The Open coming off terrestrial television.
“And, don’t forget, the Open is four days in the year. We do have a situation where golf is not generally covered free-to-air but The Open, The Masters and the Women’s Open are at the moment.
“We’ve seen some sports with free-to-air coverage that have seen a fall in participation and some where satellite coverage has seen it increase. It is very difficult to get that relationship into any kind of focus or formula.
“But, with the other arrangements we’ve made for other ways of viewing the Open Championship, we are happy that there is not going to be a significant effect on participation here.
“What we will be doing, though, is significantly increasing our actual support to initiatives in the UK and Ireland aimed at getting to grips with this participation issue.
“Goodness knows there has been millions and millions and millions of pounds put into golf initiatives over the last ten or so years in the UK. These have been great programmes, but we have to admit they haven’t produced the answer that we’d all like to see.
“I think this needs refreshing. We need to have a real go at it. We need to put a team together to come up with a good analysis of what the participation issues are. We will have increased resources to address these things and I think that is one of the great things coming out of this new television arrangement.”
Golf’s membership crisis has already seen three Lothians clubs forced into closure – Castle Park shutting its doors just last weekend after both Lothianburn and Torphin Hill had suffered the same fate within the last 18 months.
In fairness, the R&A has supported all sorts of initiatives, both close to home and all around the world, in its bid to help develop the game but, in recent years in particular, the face of the sport at club level has changed dramatically.
“I think this participation issue is multi-faceted to say the least,” added Dawson. “We seem to live in a society where people are increasingly time poor and certainly the time to play golf – the elapsed hours from leaving home to getting back again – seems to be such that it doesn’t fit into people’s lifestyles the way it used to.
“I don’t think in most parts of the UK that it’s a cost problem, though it may be to some extent. In many parts, Scotland for example, it’s not an expensive sport compared to many others.
“But have to get around this and I think it is just more than just throwing great amounts of money at grass-roots initiatives for kids and so on. I think we’ve got to be looking at a multi-faceted approach. Health benefits, for instance, and the fact golf is a game for all ages. We should be looking at a more concentrated manner at older people. Let’s be thinking about two-ball golf – more of that. Less fourball golf, all of which would make a significant difference to round times, especially to young people if they had the first two or three times of the day. But I can’t be fully definitive about this. All I’m saying is this is multi-faceted and we need to get around it.”
In making the decision to accept an offer from Sky Sports that is likely to rake in an extra £3-5million per year, the R&A took into account changing habits, with younger people just as likely to follow major sporting events through social media than actually sitting down to watch them on television.
“You say that we are not in the position to turn down money, but I think it is fair to say that for some years now we have been in that position,” said Dawson in defending the decision to take the world’s oldest major away from terrestrial television.
“That is not a criticism of the BBC ourselves. I think our main driver here has been the need to keep the Open Championship competitive with other events in golf and with other sports. That’s been priority one.
“I think with all the arrangements we’ve been able to make I think golf fans will be able to access The Open. People, especially young people, are not watching television in the way they used to do. They consume sports in many different ways and we are trying to cater for that.
“I think participation issue will not be a major one. We’ve seen with the Ryder Cup, for example, have we not, what messaging, promotion and buzz can achieve. I think people are saying that has had a very positive effect on participation in Scotland [after last year’s event at Gleneagles].”
The new deal, which will also includes the live rights for the Walker Cup going to Sky when the biennial match is played in Great Britain & Ireland, follows another ground-breaking change by the R&A last year as members voted to admit women members for the first time in 260 years.
“You’re going out with a bang here, aren’t you?” it was pointed out to Dawson yesterday in reference to his imminent retiral. The chuckle it prompted at the other end of the phone was, indeed, appropriate.