AS IT MOVES hundreds of staff to Brazil for the Olympics how the BBC must be ruing its decision to bow out of covering the Open Championship a year early given the captivating golf played by the two leading combatants, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. 2016 saw one of the most exciting Open championships for years and in marked contrast to the triumph of the virtually unknown Todd Hamilton the last time the contest came to Troon.
And Sky TV coverage was generally above reproach despite being desperate to avoid any kind of controversy. The shameful incident of Rory McIlroy breaking his three-wood on the 16th was not brought to viewers’ attention until he had reached the 18th and Sky interviewer Sarah Stirk made no reference to it when she asked McIlroy questions on camera after he had completed his round.
The really good news is that, since Sky now has the TV rights for both cricket and golf, next year’s Open at Royal Birkdale will fall between the second and third cricket test matches rather than clashing with the Lord’s test as it did this Summer. When you spend over £15m a year to secure the coverage of golf you can also dictate when the event takes place.
The single largest complaint that could possibly be raised, and it is not the faces pulled by Colin Montgomerie as he wrestles to answer the most straightforward of questions without repetition or deviation, is the advertising that Sky has brought to the event. Whilst it is kept to a minimum, lasting no more than a minute, the most contentious issue is the content. And that content invariably includes gambling.
And so we have actor Ray Winstone at his most estuarial telling us to bet and only stop when the fun stops. We have cool young men having fun checking out after another win. Join the in crowd and sit with your mobile whilst watching the golf and bet away.
Winstone does not tell us when the fun stops- presumably when the hapless punter is so deep in debt that he can’t afford another bet, yet still has another bet to try and recoup his losses before calling one of the numerous friendly loan sharks that also appear on Sky. Companies like Wonga that had its advertisements banned in 2014 because it did not mention its annual interest rates of 5,853%.
Cigarette advertising was banned on television in the UK in 1965 and of late there has been a steady groundswell of opinion that gambling, every bit as addictive to some, should follow suit. But in order to cover the huge cost of securing TV rights Sky needs to generate as much advertising revenue as possible with bookmakers going head to head to capture business in every bit as competitive a manner as Stenson and Mickelson were during their final round at Troon.
Televised golf is far from the only sport that encourages viewers to bet; football and cricket offers even more airtime coverage to snare those who cannot watch TV without having a mobile phone or a tablet to fire in comments on Twitter. Already both sports have suffered from players taking back handers from betting syndicates and can it be long before golf offers opportunities to bet on whether a player knocks his ball in a fairway bunker or three putts? The big names, already possessing wealth beyond most ordinary imaginations, would not be interested but lesser mortals may well be.
So maybe now is the time for Parliament to consider a ban. Some may argue that gambling and sport has always gone hand in hand be it covert on not, and that any prohibition would reinforce the opinion that we increasingly live in a nanny state. A ban on gambling advertising on TV and radio was scrapped in 2007 provided they were, ‘Socially responsible’ but the number of adverts has soared since then.
The R&A has taken a lot of criticism for selling its blue riband event to Sky anyway, and with figures showing a peak TV audience on the first day of 267,000 for its 14.5 hours Open coverage against the two-hour BBC highlights programme of 1.2m, it is hard to argue against. The audience for the final round of the Open was down 75% on BBC coverage in 2015, when the competition finished on a Monday that reached 4.7m. Sky’s top viewing figure that combined between Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 4 was 1.1m.
The R&A has consistently defended its position claiming that Sky will bring in a younger audience-just those most likely to be attracted to online betting. Maybe the R&A should reflect on that.