Martin Dempster: TV bleak unless golf wins back youth

Personalities such as Jordan Spieth can attract younger viewers back to the game. Picture: Getty Images
Personalities such as Jordan Spieth can attract younger viewers back to the game. Picture: Getty Images
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Of all the statistics with which we were bombarded at last week’s R&A summit on pace of play, it was some that had nothing directly to do with that issue (then again, maybe it has ) which probably had the biggest jaw-dropping effect.

Offering a media perspective, Haydn Mackenzie, editor of planning and special projects for Sky Sports, revealed that the average age of a television golf viewer is 57 and they tend to watch two 20-minute segments each day. He then told us that just five per cent of the viewing audience for the sport is made up of under-25s and that live golfing viewing figures have fallen by 24 per cent in the last five years.

Highlighting the fact that Tiger Woods’ last major win was back in 2008, Mackenzie clearly pointed to the American’s struggles since then as the biggest single factor in the sport’s appeal to the viewing public having been diminished.

“There’s clearly a lot of room to do some good work,” he said after tossing those facts and figures into the huge melting pot at the first such conference to be hosted by the game’s governing body in 12 years. Mackenzie said that “people crave pace” when it comes to what they are looking for on their screens, identifying ‘Soccer Saturday’, the lively programme hosted by Jeff Stelling that provides updates on football matches, as an example of what he meant by that.

At one time, it would have been madness to even think that people would be attracted by such a programme rather than watching live sport. It’s definitely got appeal, though, and maybe it’s time for Sky Sports to come up with a weekly golf programme that involves a panel of experts discussing the hot topics, thereby generating a bit more debate about the sport.

One thing for certain as the satellite broadcaster heads into a new era with the Open Championship as part of its tasty package for 2016 is that the arrival of a so-called new ‘Big Three’ in Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day is timely. “Consumers are attracted by personalities,” said Mackenzie, “and we see their personalities driving and boosting viewing 
figures. We will bring their stories to life.”

What was pleasing during a fascinating two days in St Andrews was that, while everyone was in agreement that pace of play needs to improve at all levels of the game, no-one suggested anything gimmicky as a means of spicing the sport up.

We saw from PowerPlay Golf, which was lauded as golf’s equivalent to Twenty20 cricket when it was launched four-and-a-half years ago and involved hitting to greens that had two flags on them, that there is no real appetite for radical change to the sport.

As Walker Cup captain Nigel Edwards pointed out, however, the introduction of nine-hole tournaments, perhaps even one that featured both amateurs and professionals, is something that should be given proper attention, as should the possibility of more match-play tournaments such as the one Paul Lawrie has added to the European Tour schedule. With the BBC shamefully having given up on golf, the onus is now solely on Sky Sports to try to attract some of those lost viewers back, and Mackenzie has promised the company is “prepared to take calculated risks” and be “innovative” as it works to try to showcase “the greatest sport out there”.

More masterclasses such as the ones introduced at this year’s British Masters at Woburn have to be a good thing, although only when play is finished. The TV 
viewers, after all, missed out on Matt Fitzpatrick, the eventual winner at Woburn, completing his opening round due to a decision to cut away from the live action.

The likes of Fitzpatrick, 
Spieth, McIlroy, Day and Rickie Fowler can surely give us hope that, in ten years’ time, the pitiful percentage of youngsters currently watching golf on the box will have increased to a more respectable figure.