The BBC and BSkyB are battling for The Open live coverage rights from 2016. The tender process for the 155-year-old competition was well under way on Thursday night, with British golf’s governing body facing one of its biggest decisions over whether to embrace pay-TV for the first time.
The R&A has stood by the BBC as exclusive rights holders for more than half a century, publicly resisting the overtures of Sky Sports after live Open coverage was removed from the list of events protected for terrestrial broadcast.
Sky has live rights for all four days of the tournament, with the BBC able to show the final two rounds and highlights of days one and two. Whether either broadcaster would agree to a similar model regarding the Open remains to be seen, with Sky easily able to pursue exclusivity by making a huge offer to the R&A.
The tender takes place in an uncertain climate for golf, which has suffered an alarming slump in participation in recent years. Rory McIlroy’s failure to win the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award, despite winning two majors in 2014, shed light on the problems golf has in engaging with the public.
Sky Sports has become the home of golf on British television and holds the exclusive rights to the Ryder Cup, US Open, PGA Championship and PGA and European Tours.
Even though it clearly has a much smaller reach than the BBC, it seems to attract more hard-core viewers. Sky Sports has shown an increasing commitment to helping promote the sports it covers at a grassroots level. The R&A could also use any additional revenue to offset a loss of profile by investing more in growing the game.
The BBC losing the Open would effectively spell the death of live men’s golf on terrestrial television. It would also raise further doubts about the corporation’s ability to compete for the biggest sports properties amid cutbacks.