FEARS that golf will suffer a participation dip due to the live rights for the Open Championship moving to paid-for television have been played down by club secretaries and managers.
In a straw poll conducted by The Scotsman following the announcement that the game’s oldest major is moving to Sky Sports in 2017, the vast majority of golf club spokesmen said they expected little or no harm to be caused by the R&A’s decision.
According to them, very few new members are attracted into golf these days on the back of watching it on television, so the change is unlikely to have a significant effect at grassroots level.
They reckon trying to speed up the game is more important for golf’s health than whether it is on a free-to-air or paid-for channel, with the R&A being encouraged to be “leaders” in that respect after chief executive Peter Dawson vowed to carry out a root-and-branch review into participation issues.
“I can understand how people are saying this will have a negative effect on the game because it was through watching events like The Open on the BBC that I would dream about holing the winning putt in it one day,” said Fraser Cromarty, the CEO at Nairn. “I also remember working in my dad’s shop and listening to the radio when Seve Ballesteros beat Nick Price at Lytham in 1988 and being really excited about that.
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“However, times have changed. So many of the best sports events are no longer on the BBC and, while in one respect it’s a shame The Open is going as well, in another the extra money from the new deal will filter down through the game.
“Also, it’s not like The Open finishes at 1am in the morning like The Masters does our time. So, when it does go to Sky, there’s a chance you’ll see youngsters coming down here for a game in the morning then staying at the club to watch it in the afternoon.”
Bob Gunning, Longniddry’s general manager, believes the BBC’s decision to drastically cut back its golf coverage in recent years has already had an impact on the game.
“The number of golf club members is decreasing and I do think the fact golf is not on terrestrial TV much probably means that the audience is diminished,” he said. “That probably explains why Rory McIlroy didn’t win BBC Sports Personality of the Year.”
Asked specifically about the new TV deal for The Open, though, he added: “I don’t think it will have an impact on membership going forward. Personally, I’m disappointed about it, but I think this has been a case of the R&A having gone to Sky because the BBC failed to pick up their game in terms of coverage.”
David Roy, the managing secretary of Crail Golfing Society, said he is confident participation levels in Scottish golf will reap “enormous dividends” over the next 30 years due to the work being put into youth development at clubs.
It’s the adults he reckons need to be targeted in the short term and, based on his own experiences, he said they won’t be influenced by a change to the R&A’s broadcasting strategy.
“Whenever I’ve asked adult novices what made them take up golf, I’m not sure anyone has ever said it was because they liked watching it on TV,” he said. “It’s either been because they didn’t have the chance to do it properly when they were working or a relation got them into it.”
Having finalised a new TV deal, Roy is now hoping the R&A tackle pace of play in a bid to prevent it further hitting participation levels. “The time factor is golf’s genuine concern,” he added. “Clubs really have no power in this. The R&A and the Tours need to be the leaders.”
Jim Callaghan, the general manager at Bothwell Castle, said he reckoned only a small percentage will be affected by the switch. “I’d imagine that 90 per cent of households now have Sky,” he said. “Also, the fact the BBC are still covering it through a two-hour highlights programme each night probably means it will have less impact than is being talked about.”
However, one club spokesman did sound a warning that there could be trouble ahead for golf, both due to the BBC losing the live rights and also the spiralling cost of a visit to The Open.
“I’m sitting here in a golf club that is in a fortunate position in the sense that we have a waiting list and money in the bank,” said Lundin secretary/manager Alistair Macdonald. “I’m not saying we are in an ivory tower, but we are lucky compared to a lot of other clubs are the moment and I do think this will have an effect on participation going forward.
“It is also very expensive for people to go to The Open these days and see idols like Rory McIlroy. I know that under-16s get in free but overall it can still be an expensive day for families.”