THERE ARE many people who would argue that the great love affair which the British people have with sport has a lot to do with the long line of outstanding sports commentators who graced the airwaves in the heyday of BBC sports coverage: Archie Macpherson, Bill McLaren, Dan Maskell, Brian Johnston and Peter O’Sullevan to name just a few. With their engaging personalities, their distinctive brand of humour, their encylopaedic knowledge of their sport and their civility, they brought sport into people’s homes for the first time. On them, we depended for enjoyment and an utterly reliable assessment of what was going on on the field, the tennis court or the race-course.
One of that old guard, Peter Alliss, who, even at what he describes himself as a “ripe old age”, remains to this day, one of the very best of British broadcasters, said how very sad he is at the decision by the Royal and Ancient to end its link with the BBC and move the TV rights to Sky; “I don’t think there will be a golfer who won’t be bitterly disappointed at the news.”
Judging by the reaction in most of the golfing world and amongst the public, he is spot on. And here is why.
After last summer, discussion in the world of sport has largely been around how to ensure there is a lasting legacy from the Commonwealth Games. This is not an easy task given that the word legacy is not easy to define – particularly in its qualitative sense. It is therefore not easy to measure.
I think there is some broad agreement around some important quantitative measures – for example, the increasing numbers who participate in sport, reducing obesity totals, raising additional money - but there is less certainty about the qualitative measures, ie how we actually deliver the circumstances which will help communities to develop a fitting legacy. One thing for sure however, is that everyone agrees it must be something which inspires young people, and young people from every background, rich or poor. This has certainly been a major feature of debate within the cross party group on sport at Holyrood.
It is on this last point that the decision to take the Open Golf off freeview TV is so disappointing. Whether the Royal and Ancient likes it or not, the decision means reducing the number of people who will view golf on television and therefore fewer people will have access to the magnificent sporting spectacle which is the British Open. The effect will be proportionately greater in disadvantaged communities – the very communities which we are trying to reach in order to inspire young people who would otherwise not engage with sport at all.
As so many of our elite athletes tell us, much of their inspiration came from watching previous sports stars on TV so we must not underestimate the power of television in the first stages of sporting participation. I have no doubt that the Royal and Ancient can make a case, as Peter Dawson, has done, that the move to Sky will produce more money for grassroots, and that is an important consideration, but it would be interesting to see the detailed statistics which the Royal and Ancient believe backs up its case. Even if it can do more things with the grassroots, there remains the critical issue about reducing the number of children who will be able to access golf on freeview TV.
This all this comes at a time when sport in general, has been doing exceptionally well in Scotland and when there is a wider debate about trying to ensure broadcasting is focussed on reaching a much wider group of people and also promoting a wider range of sports – something else which has been hotly debated at the cross party group. If there is another legacy of the outstanding Commonwealth Games it is just how much we depend on sport to promote business and tourism. That is yet, another reason to ensure that as many people as possible are able to see it on freeview TV.
Under the 1996 Broadcasting Act, the decision was taken to ensure that certain sporting events had to be shown on freeview TV: the Olympic Games, the football and rugby World Cups, the Rugby League Challenge Cup final and Wimbledon. Now, there are rumours that the BBC is thinking of splitting Wimbledon rights so little wonder that the British public is getting a little fed up. Is it really going to be the case that the so-called "Jewels in the Crown" are no longer? That the departure of the Open from the BBC to Sky is about to herald moves to tamper with the broadcasting rights which were seen to be sacrosanct? I even heard one person ask if there would be any top sport left on the BBC.
No doubt this debate will continue. Of course, the irony is that the Royal and Ancient which was so pilloried for being in its Dickensian bunker when it came to its approach to lady members is now also in the deep rough for breaking with tradition. A bit of an albatross around its neck?
Liz Smith MSP is Co-convenor of the Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group on Sport