The debate about the merits or otherwise of the vast majority of professional golf tournaments being shown on Sky in the UK has long run its course. The free-to-air brigade have lost. Comprehensively so. Sure, the BBC has the last two rounds of the Masters live (“so that Augusta National can get Sky’s money and our audience,” as one Beeb insider likes to explain it to me) and shows highlights of the Open Championship. There’s the Women’s British Open, too. But mostly the game is played out behind a paywall.
Why am I mentioning this again? I was reading last week about some imminent negotiations concerning rugby union; three different bids competing for the Six Nations Championship. One is by World Rugby; one by the International Management Group (IMG), who are very well-known in golfing circles; and one from CVC Capital. To make the offers work financially, it is probable that at least some TV rights would have to be sold to Sky, BT or one of those other channels seeking to establish themselves in a market that claims to be about free competition but mostly seems to be about screwing the public into taking out another subscription.
The Wales v England Six Nations match in Cardiff last month was watched by about 6.6 million people. That was shown on BBC 1. Switching sports, when the last Ashes Test series was shown on terrestrial television, in 2005, its peak audience was 8.4 million. The 2015 series on Sky got a high of 500,000. (Will that figure go up or down this summer?) CVC bought the rights to Formula 1 in 2006 and have gradually moved the sport off free-to-air TV in the UK. If Lewis Hamilton was just starting out, his profile would be lower than it is.
Like I say, golf has been there and done what it’s done. The awareness of the game is lower than it used to be. There is a price to be paid for selling your soul; in this case a declining popularity. I’m not depicting Sky as a corporate Mephistopheles. It is not evil. It produces terrific golf programmes and brings us the sport from all around the world. But the R&A, with the Open, and the European Tour, with the Ryder Cup, have sold their most precious assets to Sky. While many people have got richer in the process the game has in part got poorer.
It is perhaps interesting that in an effort to put its sport back before a larger audience, the England & Wales Cricket Board has concocted a controversial new format of the game, called The Hundred. (Look it up on Wikipedia.) This will be shown on the BBC. I am doubtful this would ever happen, on either basis, but if the European Tour were ever to succeed in its continual endeavours to create a genuinely new format for tournament golf, I would hope they would do their utmost to get it shown on terrestrial television. It would make sense for everyone. Even for Sky, in fact.
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also read my other blog at f-factors.com – plus there’s more golf blogging from me in the 19th hole section on the Golf Today website