Augusta might not just be witnessing Tiger Woods’ competitive comeback next week but also Peter Alliss’s farewell from the Masters. Barbara Slater, the BBC’s new director of sport, will travel to the season’s first major to try to persuade the green-jackets to remain with the corporation.
But one industry insider last night claimed that the BBC is “almost resigned” to losing the rights to Sky.
The current contract expires after this year’s tournament and talks are already underway with British broadcasters regarding a new three-year deal to begin next year. When Augusta agreed to stick with the BBC in 2007 it is believed they did so on the understanding it would have to pay the “market rate” for the next renewal. Sky outbid its rivals on that occasion and will undoubtedly do so again as it seeks to tighten their stranglehold on professional golf. The Masters would see Sky televising the three American majors, as well as the Ryder Cup.
The suspicion the BBC has already thrown in the Masters towel will only be strengthened by the revelation that Mark Thompson, the director general, will not be accompanying Slater to Georgia. Three years ago, when the rumours were rife of a Masters defection to Sky, Thompson flew in with Roger Mosey, the then director of sport, to hold talks with the Augusta hierarchy. The director general’s intervention is believed to have proved the BBC’s commitment. This time around, Slater will have to do the convincing herself, although a BBC spokesman last night claimed it is “very keen to continue” the long association.
“This is the final year of a three-year deal to cover the Masters,” a spokesman said. “Talks with the organisers have been underway for some time and Barbara Slater, BBC director of sport, will also be travelling to Augusta to meet with them and hold further talks. The BBC has a long history of covering the Masters, going back over 40 years, and we are very keen to continue doing so.”
Slater’s best hope hinges on Augusta carrying on prioritising viewing figures over finance. The BBC’s Masters coverage regularly commands viewing figures in excess of 4m, while Sky would obviously attract a fraction of this.
Five years ago, the BBC showed 30 days of live golf. This year it will drop to 16 days and if the Masters goes to satellite it will fall to 12. That will include all fours days of the Women’s British Open and all four days of the Open Championship — which is protected under the “Crown Jewels” legislation. Accusations that they have all but turned down their back on big-time golf are becoming ever more difficult to counter, particularly when their golf output is put alongside their tennis output, which currently stands at more than 30 days of live coverage.
Paul Casey, credits the BBC’s coverage as being influential in this surge.
“I was watching when I was a kid back in the 80s and early 90s,” said Casey. “Faldo, Seve, Woosnam, Langer, Lyle, Monty they got me interested in the game. That was when why I loved to watch and I got to see them live in the Masters. I think if you asked these other Europeans who have now risen in the world rankings, that’s what got them hooked.”