R&A defends selling Open TV rights to Sky Sports

From 2017 Sky Sports will have exclusive rights to show the Open live in the UK. Picture: Getty
From 2017 Sky Sports will have exclusive rights to show the Open live in the UK. Picture: Getty
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THE finger of blame has been pointed at the “greedy” R&A. On closer scrutiny, however, it’s the BBC that is depriving armchair golf fans of the opportunity to keep watching the Open Championship on terrestrial television from 2017 onwards.

According to chief executive Peter Dawson, the R&A’s decision to sell the live rights for the game’s oldest major to Sky Sports was a no-brainer because the BBC had indicated it would be content with a highlights package in keeping with the event’s B-listed status among the so-called ‘crown jewels’ list of events protected for free-to-air TV.

Peter Dawson. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Peter Dawson. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

In effect, the BBC gave up the tournament it will have shown live for 60 years once the current contract ends without a fight, even shirking away from the possibility of a Masters-style deal whereby it shares the last two days of live coverage with Sky Sports. Aware that the new TV deal has been met with anger, Dawson took up most of an hour-long press briefing with golf journalists in St Andrews yesterday to explain the tendering process that resulted in two “valid bids”, from Sky Sports and the BBC.

“We tendered it because we have a duty, I think, to the Open Championship to make sure it remains a pre-eminent event, to make sure that it’s commercially competitive with other events in golf and other sports so that we can continue to reinvest in the championship,” he said, revealing that the three majors in the US received bigger fees for UK rights than the Open did.

“We wanted to make sure, as well, that the quality of the broadcast and the coverage was up to the best possible standard, and I think it would be a dereliction of duty on the R&A’s part not to go out to the market to see what is available. We were impressed by the bids we got back, not just commercially but also in terms of broadcast innovation, the messaging opportunities it would give to the R&A about golf, not just through the championship but through the year, how much the championship would be promoted and in one case how the profile might allow us to get to a younger demographic than we’ve been able to do in the past.

“I don’t think it’s breaking a confidence to say, in the end, there were really two valid bids. We asked a lot of questions of both companies and, at the end of that question-and-answer session, we went out for a second round of bids because there were so many points in the questions that could have affected it.

“At that stage, I think all I can say is that it was very, very clear that the BBC were interested in pursuing the highlights option. Construe that as you will. And the decision to go with the live rights with Sky was one I would suggest that if you are in possession of the information we are that every one of you would have made. There’s not a person in this room, believe me, that would have made that decision, given the state of play at that time.”

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While reluctant to say so directly, Dawson was effectively telling us that Sky Sports’ offer was the only tenable option. “I’ve said to you, the BBC made it clear the highlight feed was the way they wanted to go,” he added. “The BBC did bid for the live rights initially, so it’s not true to say they didn’t want them, I don’t think. Later on in the process, they switched emphasis. I’m not 100 per cent sure why.

“[The Masters-style deal] wasn’t something that found favour with both parties. It was financially driven, I’m guessing, but you’d have to ask them [the BBC].”

It means that from 2017 the BBC’s only live men’s golf will be the final two rounds of the Masters and, based on recent events, it remains to be seen how long that current arrangement with Sky Sports will last.

However, Dawson was reluctant to stick the knife into the R&A’s long-time lead broadcaster and, in fact, suggested the company is no longer operating on a level playing field with the likes of Sky Sports and BT Sport. “I don’t feel let down by the BBC,” he claimed. “I think the BBC does a tremendous job in quite difficult circumstances now. Perhaps this is not a popular view, but I don’t think it’s possible for the BBC to do everything that the great British public wants at the current licence fee level. I just don’t think they’ve got a chance. That has to be addressed.”

He was asked if the BBC had lost interest in golf due to the game losing some of its appeal, a fact backed up by a drop in both participation and membership numbers. “I think it’s certainly something that crosses one’s mind from time to time. I think BBC, as anyone does, has to make choices as to their priorities,” replied Dawson. “I think it’s down to the economics of it all and the commercial pressures that free-to-air TV is under.”

Through NOW TV, viewers will be able to watch a week’s coverage of The Open once it switches to satellite television for between £10 and £11 without having to buy a full Sky Sports subscription package.

Through a combination of this option, the live coverage and two hours of highlights at prime-time – 8pm-10pm each night – on the BBC, the R&A are confident the overall viewing figures will be comparable to those at present.

“It is not true people will have to have a Sky subscription to watch it. It is not true that the broadcast will be full of adverts [to be limited to four minutes per hour]. It is not true actually that according to our analysis that the viewership figures will fall when you add all these things together,” said Dawson.

“We’re actually convinced that the viewership numbers will be very similar and we will be targeting a younger generation than the profile we would get on the normal BBC live coverage.”

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