MONEY was not solely behind the R&A’s decision to sell exclusive live rights for the Open Championship to Sky Sports, chief executive Peter Dawson has insisted.
Dawson also claimed that the “controversial” change to broadcasting rights for golf’s oldest major after 60 years of it being shown by the BBC will “bring a new world and new dimension” to the event.
Confirming recent speculation, Sky Sports will take over live coverage in 2017 after agreeing a five-year contract with the R&A that is believed to worth at least £10m per year to the game’s governing body.
The current BBC deal, which includes this year’s event at St Andrews and next year’s at Royal Troon, is reported to be bringing in £7m per year for the St Andrews-based organisation.
Despite speculation to the contrary, Dawson denied that, in the tendering process for the new contract, there had been an option for a Masters-style arrangement, whereby Sky show live coverage for all four days at Augusta National but share the final two rounds with the BBC.
Instead, after 60 years as the event’s main broadcaster, the BBC have been left with only a highlights deal that will see all four days of the Claret Jug joust screened between 8pm-10pm each night.
Non-Sky subscribers are being offered a cheaper option to watch live action – Royal Birkdale will host the first event under the new deal – through the opportunity to buy either daily or weekly packages for NOW TV. “This hasn’t been purely a price issue,” insisted Dawson, who is due to retire later this year and hand over to Martin Slumbers.
“The R&A have a 60-year relationship with the BBC going back to the mid-1950s and we enjoyed that relationship and it has been very close. Obviously we haven’t made this change lightly. I can’t deny that the commercial aspects of the tender that we’ve just been through haven’t been important, but there have been other things as well. We have been looking at a wide range of factors in coming to this decision – quality of coverage, household reach, innovations in the broadcast, as well as promotion and messaging of the championship.”
Having admitted in an open letter the change would be seen by some as “controversial”, he added: “The postbag has been slightly fuller than normal recently and that confirmed what we really knew, ie there was a proportion of the population who would see this change in our broadcasting arrangements negatively.
“That’s why we have taken great pains to ensure that we have excellent highlights coverage agreed with the BBC in prime time 8pm-10pm on all four days of the championship.
“We’ve also got a very strong digital offer from Sky, the R&A itself and the BBC. Something people forget and we’ve had a lot of mail about this with Sky’s NOW TV offer people can watch live coverage at a very modest cost indeed without having to buy all the great benefits of being a Sky subscriber. That’s something that is something I think is an extremely important point.
“The other thing we have heard about from a number of people who’ve been in touch is their antipathy about extended advertising during the broadcasts and we have agreed with Sky that will be limited to four minutes per hour with no break longer than a minute for commercial advertising.
“I think a combination of all those things, together with the very experienced team Sky have doing live golf brings a new world to The Open and a new dimension to it and I think anyone who wants to watch The Open will still be able to do so.”
It was widely believed The Open was one of British sports so-called “crown jewels” along with the likes of Wimbledon, the FA Cup and Six Nations rugby and, therefore, had to be shown on terrestrial television.
That has proved not to be the case and, from 2017 onwards, Sky Sports will hold the rights to show all four majors as well as the Ryder Cup, golf’s biggest team event by far.
“There is commercial confidentiality about the agreement we have reached with both Sky and the BBC and I’m not able to give numbers, although I would say that some of the numbers I’ve seen reported in the past few days have been a good deal less than accurate,” said Dawson. “We received no proposal of this nature,” he added on the Masters-style deal before, in response to being asked if the BBC had made a decent fist of hanging on to the live TV rights, he replied: “You’d have to ask the BBC about that.
“I’m not privy to their internal situation but you can be assured, I think, that after a 60-year relationship they wouldn’t have given it up lightly.
“We’ve always been very close and open and honest with the BBC. I don’t think it’s been a secret for some time that the UK rights have been on something on a commercial plateau. One of our biggest responsibilities is to keep the Open Championship to the forefront of golf events and indeed sports events, not just in the UK but in the world.
“It is well known how lucrative some of the commercial arrangements are for the other major golf championships and we have to be very careful that The Open can keep pace with them in terms of the facilities for spectators, the prize-money and everything it costs to stage a championship. All of that has been baked into the thinking here.”
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