OPEN Championship organisers are hoping that a dramatic drop in attendance at last year’s event at Muirfield was nothing more than a “blip” and remain confident it wasn’t caused by ticket prices.
The R&A was expecting 160,000 fans at the East Lothian venue last July and hoping for 170,000, but instead the figure for the week, which included a last-day attendance of just under 30,000, was 142,036.
That compared to a total of 160,595 spectators when the Claret Jug joust was staged at Muirfield in 2002, when close to 31,500 turned up on the final day to see Ernie Els prevail.
In a week when the weather certainly couldn’t be blamed – though, oddly, the R&A did try to claim that a heatwave had “put off some of our pay-at-the-gate customers” – the focus turned to ticket prices of £75.
However, they have been held at the same figure for this year’s event at Royal Liverpool, where a record English attendance for The Open, 230,000, watched Tiger Woods claim back-to-back wins when it returned there after a 39-year absence in 2006.
“It is interesting because the research we did after the Open Championship last year showed that the people who went thought the ticket price was fair, but the ones that didn’t go didn’t think it was fair,” said Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive. “I still think it is very good value for money compared to other sporting events and the ticket sales at the same price as last year are going strongly for Hoylake.
“Last year’s attendance drop is obviously something that makes you sit up and wonder if it is a blip or a trend. It’s far too early to say it’s a trend and Hoylake was very strong for us in 2006.
“Part of that will have been novelty value, so if we got the 2006 numbers again I think that will be stunning, but our expectation is for a bit less than that.”
Dawson insisted the possibility of people being put off Muirfield due to the well-publicised row over its men-only membership policy was “marginal”. He said: “It was also a question in our post-event research and got quite a low response, very low.”
According to the R&A’s director of communications, Malcolm Booth, a clash with other two other major sporting events, cycling’s Tour de France and the Ashes cricket series, had been more of a contributing factor.
“The cross-over between our audience and that for cricket and cycling is something that came through quite strongly,” he insisted. “The resurgence of the Tour de France in the last couple of years with a greater British interest does create something of a perfect sporting weekend.
“It means that if you come to The Open you are only going to get one part of that and I think that had as much impact last year as any other issue.”
A free wi-fi network for spectators is being provided in every grandstand at Hoylake, where the prize fund, though yet to be set, will again be one of the biggest in the game.
Much of that will once more be drawn in from lucrative TV deals, which include one with the BBC that runs through until the 2016 event at Royal Troon.
While keen to keep the world’s oldest major on terrestrial television, Dawson admitted a recent deal struck by the USGA with Fox Sports – reported to be worth $100 million per year for 12 years – could influence future negotiations regarding The Open.
“We are happy with the relationship we have with the BBC,” he said. “To us, as a governing body, the viewing figures are very important as we want to convey the game to as many viewers as possible.
“Conversely, we have to ensure that our revenues are such that we can reinvest in the championship. So there’s a balance there somewhere.
“There have been some exciting deals in the US for golf events and that’s our competitive marketplace. The Fox deal for the US Open could become a game-changer for the sport. It’s certainly a game-changer for the USGA as the increase in annual revenue is massive.”
Prospects of the R&A taking The Open back to Royal Portrush or to Royal Porthcawl for the first time will continue to be weighed up when those courses stage the Amateur Championship and Senior Open Championship respectively this year.
Meanwhile, a decision has still to be made on a venue for the 150th staging of the world’s oldest major in 2021, with Dawson insisting there was no guarantee it would be held on the Old Course.
“We did not play the 100th staging at St Andrews – that was at Birkdale,” he noted.