Angry at the BBC's PGA coverage? You're angry for the wrong reasons

The Scoop

The BBC's coverage was the main talking point of PGA Championship. But we're not directing our ire at the right people, writes Tom Irwin in his latest Foghorn.

The Home of Major Golf. Well, most of it. And as long as it’s not too expensive.

Not so long ago the UK golf fan was outraged that the R&A had finally succumbed to Sky’s riches as the Open, the sport’s crown jewel, disappeared behind a paywall and with it the virtual death knell of free-to-air golf broadcasting.

The R&A had finally decided that the cash on offer outweighed the drop in viewing numbers.

Wind forward a couple of years and an odd and unexpected set of circumstances sees the final major of the year back on the BBC.

Now you’re angry again. But now it’s because the golf is on terrestrial TV.

But the simple fact is your considerable personal investment in Sky has not been delivered on. It is certainly not the fault of the BBC that Sky missed out on the PGA Championship.

They did not win a bidding war and elbow Sky to one side. They effectively stepped in at the last minute and picked up a very messy scenario not of their own making.

If the PGA Championship taught us anything, it is that most Twitter users are also Sky subscribers. Those that were angry outweighed those that were just glad because they don’t have Sky by about 9-to-1.

There is little place for balance, perspective, fact or, indeed, reason on Twitter, but “I am angry because I can watch golf but not as I usually do” is First World Problems at its finest. (Or worst – whichever way you look at it.)

If you want to be angry at the BBC’s coverage, don’t be angry at the bumbling commentary, or the lack of HD, or the lack of Sky Cart, or the lack of a ‘zone’, but at the missed opportunity.

It was, most importantly, and not for the first time, the lack of awareness of who you are talking to as a mainstream channel when broadcasting sport.

It is the one opportunity many sports have to talk to armchair fans, new fans, children, and potential future participants.

Golf is not on the school curriculum. People don’t play it in parks. If your family doesn’t play, how do you know it exists? A terrestrial broadcast, no matter how poor, talks to new people and it must do so much more directly. The BBC runs an excellent Get Inspired programme that England Golf taps into and, I am told, collaborate with better than any other governing body in their respective sports.

So where was the messaging?

When the rain delay came on Saturday, instead of showing us a pond, or a tree, here was the opportunity to talk to new fans.

Where were the calls to action linking the new viewer with a root into a sport they have just discovered?

The same opportunity was totally missed during the terrestrial broadcast of the Olympics. We do not need presenters asking media-trained tour pros how pleased they are with their 66.

What we need on a terrestrial broadcast is participation messages – tell us where we can go and try golf, show us beginners picking up a club and loving it. Get people while they are inspired.

The reaction this weekend was ludicrous and ill-informed. Let’s look at how we ended up here.

The PGA of America, rights holder of the PGA and the Ryder Cup and represented by IMG, pushed Sky for a bigger broadcast deal – double previous years, we are led to believe. Sky eventually called their bluff and walked away. The PGA, already experimenting with Twitter broadcasts of early parts of previous events, went to the BBC last minute with a cut-price deal. The rub for them, of course, is that regardless of the comparative paucity of the coverage, the red button, the lack of HD and all the rest of it, you are guaranteed bigger numbers. Just don’t expect bells and whistles.

I applaud anything that is taking golf to a wider audience, be it a terrestrial broadcast, a web broadcast, or via social media. If more people see it – and if more new people see it – that can only be positive.

What about the awful presentation versus the BAFTA-winning Sky coverage? I love Sky’s coverage. I love hearing Claude Harman analyse technique. I love the insight. I love the knowledge and investment in the sport.

But I already play golf, and so do you. And I would watch golf if it was in black and white, and so would you. So I don’t really matter, and neither do you.

I do, though, buy the argument that a great piece of television can present a sport in a more appealing light. I am a novice cyclist, and the Eurosport highlights programme of the Tour de France drips with bite-sized inspiration so the presentation point is not lost on me. But if you are only preaching to the converted then what is the point of preaching at all?

I accept that unquestionably the BBC’s output was laughable at times and way behind what Sky produce week in week out, but then the BBC are not a sports specialist broadcaster. Nor do they claim to be. They are generalist broadcaster producing their own programmes across the entire spectrum of interests. Yet here we are judging them by the highest possible standards, and boy did we:

Angry at the coverage? The actual feed is exactly what Sky would have had. You know when Sky starts broadcasting at 6pm but there is no live golf for hours? We all get annoyed by that as well, don’t we?

The commentary was awful? Some of it was, and the casual racism, blatant errors, and lack of knowledge were simply inexcusable. As was Mark James, who, on at least two occasions, told viewers that Hideki Matsuyama would be the “first ever Asian major champion” if he were to go on and win.

For balance, though, do consider that the BBC is not speaking to just you – the avid, Sky-subscribing fanatic who knows his Rahms from his Nas and his ‘laid off’ from his ‘across the line’. They are also appealing to the layman who has the same level of knowledge as you do when you stumble across the shot put.

To an extent that commentary is a matter of taste. You can forgive the factual faux pas from Ken Brown and Peter Alliss because the overall package is charisma-laden, charming and unobtrusive. For many this is preferable to the knowing, hyperbole we are fed on Sky.

Brown is insightful, funny and well up to speed, and I can forgive Alliss. I even applaud him for saying that Justin Thomas has “just burst on to the scene” because, if you are 86 years old and the last time you saw live golf was the 2015 Open on BBC, he has.

What was missing was Andrew Cotter, the straight man to Alliss’ joker, if you will, the glue that holds the commentary team together.

The BBC was underprepared? They had three weeks. A decent production would have required closer to a year to plan, and it did improve as the Championship progressed.

It wasn’t on the mainstream channel until very late? 93% of you have access to the internet, and even my dad can use the red button.

It wasn’t in HD? No, it wasn’t, but then it also cost you approximately 0.0004 pence and not £10 a month extra on top of goodness knows how much else.

If I was angry of Tunbridge Wells – which I am not as I found the whole thing hilarious and the 2017 PGA Championship is my favourite major of all time for the pastiche and parody it provided – then I would be directing my Point of Views pen at Sky, rather than the BBC.

I wonder if Justin Thomas knows that his victory will always be asterisked “The One on the BBC”…

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