By John Hughman , 25 April 2012
The governing body that controls British golf, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, has warned the BBC that it risks losing the right to broadcast the Open - the country’s most prestigious tournament, if not the world’s – if it does not improve its coverage of the sport.
I can’t say I’m surprised at the R&A's concerns. The BBC has trimmed back its coverage of golf so much already that us humble non-Sky subscribers hardly ever get to see any action from the fairways today (although I'll be forever grateful to my boss, Simon Thompson, and the dodgy Welsh weather, for giving me the afternoon off to head to the pub and watch the final day's play of the last Ryder Cup). With the exception of the Open, BBC Majors coverage is limited to the last two days of the Masters. Beyond that we get a couple of live days from the Scottish Open and the BMW PGA Championship, which are being pared back to highlights in 2013. And even when we do get to watch a bit of golf, the BBC foists the likes of crisp salesman Gary Lineker and, more recently at the Masters, cricketer Michael Vaughan on us as presenters. Sportsmen they may be but golf experts they are not - you’d think the people running the Beeb don’t really like us golf aficionados very much.
...but only if you subscribe to Sky Sports
Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if they don’t like sports fans full stop. Golf isn’t the only sporting pursuit I enjoy that’s gradually disappearing from free-to-air TV. Just before the start of the 2012 Formula 1 season, the BBC decided that it would give up half of its rights to cover live races to Sky, a full two years before the contract was due to be re-tendered. The BBC is still showing the races it doesn’t broadcast live, but several hours after the proceedings have finished, an arrangement that simply doesn’t match the frisson of the real-time experience (even if the presenting team that Sky didn’t manage to poach do a damn sight better job than the pay-TV counterparts Sky). The whole new arrangement is, frankly, a mess.
Of course, in these straightened times the BBC, like any other state-funded body, has to tighten the purse strings - BBC Sport has been tasked with cutting its annual budget by 15 per cent. And the rights to prestigious events like F1, football and golf are expensive to say the least. But like cricket and football, they're not minority sports either, which means there must surely be enough licence payers, like me, to justify the BBC committing to investing in them.
I'd go one step further, in fact, and suggest that the BBC has a duty to deliver a decent level of sports coverage on terrestrial TV, because sport is so ingrained in the nation’s culture. The BBC has had no small part to play in nurturing this deep relationship. I grew up on an amazingly varied sporting diet thanks to the BBC, taking in everything from the crazy world of Group B rallying to downhill skiing to snooker at the height of its hell-raising era. Even though I never played most of these sports I loved them all, as did most of my family - because everyone could watch sport for free, sport was universally watched. My auntie - not a cricket fan per se - tuned in to most of Botham's Ashes whilst doing her ironing. My Nan - who as far as I'm aware never lifted a cue in her life - was one of the 18.5m who stayed up until silly o'clock to watch the 1985 World Snooker Championship final between Steve Davies and Dennis Taylor, still the most watched programme ever to be aired on BBC 2. And who can listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” or Booker T and the MGs' “Soul Limbo” without immediately thinking of motor racing or cricket.
Maybe we were spoiled, but I think it’s a shame that rampant commercialism means the current generation will not be able to enjoy sport in the same way that mine did. Sky may be able to offer round the clock coverage of a multitude of sports, but many families simply can't justify or afford to shell out the £400 a year or so to watch it on top of the £150 BBC license fee to watch a few hours of sport each week. Or they don't want to send their hard earned cash the way of the Dirty Digger's mob – I, for one, feel vindicated in my decision to shun Sky after the latest sordid revelations surrounding the government's collusion in the Murdochs' attempts to take full control of the broadcaster. And while some would argue that Sky’s cash has changed sport for the good, I'm not so sure that making hundreds of sportsmen obscenely rich is what sport should be all about.
Surely, given the national importance of sport, the government should be spending more time helping the BBC remain a force to be reckoned with in sport, rather than cozying up to corporate interests and helping the likes of Sky carve up the BBC's once mighty sporting coverage. It's ironic that the 2012 Olympic slogan is "Inspire a Generation", because beyond the two weeks of televised, free-to-air sport we'll get this summer, the slow demise of BBC Sport means the next generation stands to lose the inspiration that my generation grew up with every week. The UK will become a poorer place for it.