Major problems for Sky

    Glyn Pritchard looks at the changes in television coverage of the four men’s major championships.

    Having lost the live broadcast rights for The Open to Sky, I think everyone was amazed when the Beeb managed to snatch the rights for the US PGA this year. The whole thing was so unexpected that most of the coverage had to be broadcast on the BBC’s red button digital service because the PGA clashed with the BBC’s already planned coverage of the World Athletics Championships.

    Reports subsequent to the deal indicate that IMG, which was acting as agents for the PGA of America, wanted to double the amount that Sky had paid previously for a new multi-year deal, believing they had Sky over a barrel. IMG was then surprised when at the eleventh hour Sky walked away and a quick a one year deal had to be concluded with the BBC.

    The spin that the PGA of America put on the deal was that the BBC’s greater audience reach was worth the cut in revenue and that a multi-year deal with the BBC will likely follow. Jeff Price, the chief commercial officer of the PGA of America stated: “It was a multi-year deal that was up. Ultimately one of the key things for us is scale of distribution and obviously with all the new platforms that consumers are engaging with, we want to make sure we reach all of them. Broad distribution, multi-platform distribution is the key objective for us. I’m not in a position yet to share all the details but we want the ability to engage golf fans of all ages across all platforms. We are very excited about the plan we have in place.”

    There is no doubt that Sky’s coverage of golf has been excellent, with golf now one of only four sports to have a dedicated channel on the Sky platform. Sky has done a great deal to promote golf, screening hours of regular tour events on the US and European tours, that would never have been aired before the advent of satellite broadcasting. But those events are seen only by those of us that already have an interest in golf and are willing to pay.

    That is why I believed moving live coverage of The Open to Sky was a serious mistake by the R&A, because to keep interest in golf by the general public and not just the already converted golfing community, the UK’s premier golfing event should be shown on free-to-air TV. It’s important here to make a distinction between sport participation and sport spectating. Many more people watch football, tennis and athletics than actively participate. Sports such as cricket and professional boxing have definitely been harmed by being shown exclusively on subscription based platforms, with the general public losing interest.

    The irony now is that the PGA of America has switched coverage of the US PGA to the BBC ostensibly because of its greater audience reach, while the R&A discounted the link between greater free-to-air TV coverage and participation levels as unproven, stating that the extra money from Sky could be put towards promoting participation.

    The US PGA has always been the Cinderella of the four men’s golf majors. Originally a matchplay tournament, it now seems just a re-run of the US Open with little to distinguish it except the participation of a few American club professionals. In an attempt to counter this perception, the PGA of America is moving the event to May from 2019, so that it follows the Masters and precedes the US Open and The Open.

    Moving earlier in the season means the US PGA should no longer been seen as an afterthought and announcing the move Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America’s chief executive, stated: “television markets in general are stronger in May.”

    In another twist the Daily Telegraph exclusively reported in July that BT was in the running to take the broadcast rights for all four days of the Masters away from Sky. The USGA is also said to be reviewing UK broadcast rights for the US Open after its current contract with Sky ends in 2018. As with the US PGA, Sky’s limited audience figures are said to be a factor in the USGA’s decision making.

    So from having the UK broadcasting rights to all four majors in 2016, Sky now finds it could end the decade with just The Open to televise. Of course there’s more to professional golf than the four majors and Sky still has the US and European Tours, the WGC events, the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup to fill its schedules. There’s no doubt about it though; the market for sports broadcasting rights in general and golf in particular is becoming increasingly volatile.

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    A graduate of Cardiff University’s highly respected post-graduate magazine journalism course, Andy has successfully edited four different publications across the B2B, trade and consumer sectors. He is skilled at all aspects of the magazine process in addition to editing websites and managing social media channels.