Sky given chance to capture the Open

Golf
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The Independent Online
Golf

TIM GLOVER AND

MATHEW HORSMAN

The Open Championship, one of the largest remaining jewels in the BBC's sporting crown, is courting satellite television. The Royal and Ancient, which runs the Open, has approached BSkyB through an intermediary and is discussing a deal worth pounds 25m over five years. The BBC is paying less than pounds 1m a year.

As the new Broadcasting Bill makes its way through Parliament, with support emerging to protect eight major sport events from falling into the hands of BSkyB, the Open is left to its own devices.

The event is synonymous with the BBC but the television contract expires after the 125th Open at Royal Lytham in July. The Open is not one of the "listed" events - the Olympic Games, the World Cup, Test cricket, Wimbledon, the Grand National, the Derby, the FA Cup final and the Scottish FA Cup final - prevented by current legislation from being broadcast on pay-TV.

The success of the Open, which makes a profit of pounds 3-4m a year, makes the R and A financially self-sufficient but it needs more to develop the game at grass roots. Through an intermediary, TWI, the television arm of Mark McCormack's International Management Group, it is testing the water with subscription television.

Sky had no official comment, but is known to be interested in expanding its coverage of major golf events, following a controversial deal reached last year to broadcast the Ryder Cup exclusively on pay-TV.

According to informed sources, the discussions will resume in earnest once TWI has ascertained whether the BBC is prepared to match Sky's offer.

"Any sporting organisation that invites us to have discussions will always be welcome," a Sky source said.

The prospect of a satellite dish appearing as a fixture on the skyline atop the granite and hallowed walls of the R and A clubhouse at St Andrews, a links which has borne witness to 600 years of golfing history, would probably have most members duffing their shots at the 18th into the Swilcan Burn. Nevertheless, it remains a strong possibility.

"We have already established that we are interested," Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R and A, said yesterday. "We haven't had any direct talks with Sky but we have asked TWI to advise us on what we can get. We want them to tell us what the Open is worth as a television medium. Of course, we don't have to accept what we are told."

Bonallack, who was one of the game's great amateur players, said the R and A has a dilemma. The BBC pays less than pounds 1m, but guarantees a huge television audience. Sky, on the other hand, has the money but a limited number of viewers. "Ideally we want the Open to be seen by as many people as possible," Bonallack said. "The trouble is that thousands of youngsters who then see the game and want to play it discover there are not enough courses or it is too expensive for them. Our policy is to put money back into golf to enable them to play but there's not much point if the facilities don't exist. We could use more money to invest."

Last year the Ryder Cup, another traditional centrepiece of the BBC's golf coverage, went to Sky for the first time. Sky show extensive coverage of the American Tour and several European Tour events. Last year they took over the British Masters at Collingtree when no sponsor could be found. They stepped in and the BBC, who had the rights to the tournament, withdrew.

The loss of the Open would be a grievous blow to the BBC, who have recently seen the FA Cup final and the Formula One grand prix circuit snapped up by ITV. Sky is also preparing a substantial bid for rugby union's Five Nations' Championship.

Sky is understood to have offered pounds 25m for a five-year deal but Bonallack said the figure was news to him and he added: "We've still got to talk with the BBC." A spokesman for TWI said: "Like any good rights owner the R and A is looking at all the opportunities. Our role is to see what the market is offering, the upsides and downsides. We are meeting all the broadcasters."

When the Open was last held at Royal Lytham in 1988, prize-money was pounds 700,000 with the winner, Seve Ballesteros, taking pounds 80,000. This year the total purse is pounds 1.4m and the champion will win pounds 200,000. With guidance from McCormack, who helped the Wimbledon tennis championships to maximise profits, the Open has steadily become more commercialised and three years ago, for the first time, allowed advertising hoardings to appear on course.

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