The BBC made it clear to the R&A that the highlights-only option for Open Championship coverage “was where they wanted to go” during the controversial TV live rights process, chief executive Peter Dawson has revealed.
Dawson said the deal as announced last week with Sky Sports assuming live rights and the BBC, the R&A’s partner for 60 years, taking two hours of highlights each evening was one “anyone would have made”.
“There’s not a person in this room, believe me, that would have made (a different) decision, given the state of play at that time,” he said about the decision he described as the most contentious in his 15 year tenure in his post, which ends later this year.
Dawson confirmed that Sky and the BBC had been the only two bidders for live rights, the R&A putting the rights out to tender after they learned they were getting less for the Open TV rights than the American majors were getting to show their events on UK TV.
“Having got the first bids back, we then obviously had a lot of questions to ask, and we asked a lot of questions of both companies,” he said. “We then went out for a second round of bids because there were so many new points to cover.
“At that stage, I think all I can say is that it was very, very clear that the BBC at that point were interested in pursuing the highlights option. Construe that as you will.
“And the decision to go with the live rights with Sky was one I would suggest that, if you are in possession of the information we are, every one of you would have made.”
Asked if in effect the Sky bid was the only tenable one left on the table, Dawson said “I’ve said all I’m going to say on that.”
Given the requirement to keep the Open commercially competitive, reinvesting in the championship and maintaining the quality of the broadcast, it would have been “a dereliction of duty” on the R&A’s part not to tender the TV rights, he added.
The BBC had been in on that process in the first stage, but then changed emphasis, he said.
“The BBC made it clear that the highlight feed was the way they wanted to go,” he continued. “It’s not true to say they didn’t want the live rights because they did initially. I’m not 100 per cent sure why (they changed their minds).
“I think the BBC does a tremendous job in quite difficult circumstances now, and perhaps this is not a popular view, but I don’t think it’s possible for the BBC to do everything that the great British public wants at the current licence fee level. I just don’t think they’ve got a chance, and that has to be addressed.”
The R&A were confident that the mixture of Sky live coverage, access to their pictures on NOW TV for a one-off payment of around £10, and the BBC highlights would deliver similar numbers of viewers to before, he said, with a more youthful demographic.
There was a “significant” gap between the two initial bids but none of the figures mentioned had been correct, he said, and added that it had been the BBC’s own lobbying that had removed the Open from the A list of events which had to be broadcast live on free-to-air TV.
Dawson added it was “borderline absurd” to suggest that four days of The Open moving to Sky would make a dramatic difference in participation in golf.
“There’s no formula here, we know of sports on free-to-air where participation has fallen and some on subscription television were participation has risen,” he said.
“There are many other facets to this in the mix of why participation goes up and down. Millions and millions have been thrown at participation in the last few years and we don’t know what would have happened had that not been done, but clearly it hasn’t achieved the results we’d hoped for.
“We have to have a Blue Sky look at this with all the bodies in golf in the UK and see if we can get this thing turned. But I think it’s going to need some new thinking, and I think it’s got to be based on realism.”
The public response to the new TV contract had gained the biggest reaction to any issue during his 15-year tenure, he continued.
“This would be the highest, and there was definitely some intemperate language,” he said. “Second would be anchored putters, probably.”