Is the USPGA broadcasting omnishambles a sign of things to come?


Sometimes a Twitter storm comes out of nowhere. An idle comment which causes offence and boom, everyone's timeline is lit up. And then sometimes they are utterly predictable. The outcry around the BBC coverage of the PGA championship this week is definitely in the latter camp.

The complaints around the BBC's coverage are many and varied - the commentators don't know who half of the players are, they don't know the golf course, they are merely commentating on what is on the screen and adding no flavour, there are no 'extras' at all, it's not even on the telly but hiding behind the red button in standard definition. This is all evidence that the BBC can't ever show a golf tournament again; it is an insult to every golf fan out there. And so it goes on, you get the idea.

The problem here is that it is just impossible to put on a show with no time and no budget, especially when it's not one of your core competencies any more. Televising a golf event isn't something out of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney MGM musical ('let's put on a show right here') - it takes months of planning and preparation and a whole army of staff to get right. The BBC secured the rights for the USPGA just three weeks before it was curtains up. You would be hard pushed to put on a school show in that time.

The PGA of America, advised by IMG, must have thought they had a pretty strong hand in their negotiations with Sky, the undisputed home of TV golf in the UK. They have mopped up coverage of the Open and The Masters in recent years and have deep pockets. Surely Sky would pay double the previous amount to ensure the launch of Sky Sports Golf went off without embarrassment?

However, they appear to have overplayed their hand and, when the Sky negotiations broke down, the PGA of America made great play of the wonderful new era of sports viewing they were ushering in and the importance of making this great event free to view for all. They added a social partner as well in 'Give me Sport' who could stream on Facebook and bang, they thought, the PGA of America is a visionary organisation leading the way in the future of sports broadcasting.

Suspicions are that this is complete tosh. Sky walked away at the last moment and the PGA of America were left to try to cobble together some kind of a deal. So IMG went a-calling to good old Auntie.

The BBC saw an opportunity. The opportunity to stage a major golf event for next to nothing is one that doesn't come along every day. There were a few logistical hurdles for sure but where there is a will there is often a way.

Firstly, the event would clash with the much anticipated World Athletics Championships. The BBC has been planning this event for over a year (of course - that's what you do with events of this stature!) and it would be virtually impossible to find time in the schedules at such short notice.

Secondly, there was no time to get a production crew in place and do anything meaningful on the ground in the States.

And thirdly, they didn't have a top drawer specialist golf team in place any more - either on-air talent or off-air production. The BBC have really given up on golf now and the top talent has gone elsewhere.

None of these were enough to put the BBC off though, the offer was too good to turn down. While hindsight is easy, surely they could have foretold the reputational issues that would come their way?

Well, they thought they could get around the scheduling problems by putting the coverage online and on the red button. In fact, this would show how hip and with the digital age they are. Alas, the reality is that golf has a pretty hard core viewing audience who are used to high production standards and are vocal when things go wrong.

Most used the red button for coverage and the picture quality on a modern HD TV was quite terrible. It was like watching two heroes of yesteryear in an episode of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.

Presenters were frantically tweeting out tips for how to get a better picture and Peter Alliss went on the offensive but frankly the damage was done. The image was of a BBC who didn't want to give fans more than an hours 'proper' coverage a day.

Then there was the lack of any notable production on the ground. No problem - the host broadcaster would provide a stream of pictures and the trusty BBC commentators would do the voiceover.

The problem here is that the international feed isn't great. The BBC producers are at the mercy of someone else deciding which pictures to show and there is no option to vary it at all. They can't create a narrative, they don't know what is coming up on the screen next, they can't even decide what to show again.

Sky don't just rely on host broadcaster cameras these days. For WGC events and Majors they will have their own crews on the course following the players of interest to a European audience; they will have their own extensive production unit as well as a bespoke on-site studio and the Sky cart.

Sky would have their first production meeting months before showing an event like this. They will be discussing interesting angles to cover, map the course and show it in a whole host of imaginative ways, they would interview the players months in advance.

The BBC didn't have the time or resources to do any of this. Instead they sat a few old hands in a studio somewhere in the UK with the same pictures you and I saw and told them to get on with it.

This would have been a tall order for the most experienced and current of commentators. The Sky team commentate on many of these players week in and week out but still they need to do extensive research for an event like this. The lack of familiarity that Alliss and co have with some of those in the field led to some real howlers.

And, the fact is that the team hastily assembled by the BBC isn't the best in the industry. If they were they would have regular broadcasting gigs, either with Sky or the European Tour broadcasting unit. Alliss has been a disaster for anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the game for many years, to say that Mark James is soporific would be polite and Maureen Madill appears to be something of a polarising figure.

Ken Brown is best employed out on the course, as his twitter handle would imply, and the only commentator I think who would get a place in the Sky booth (Andrew Cotter) was wisely otherwise engaged.

They did have a man on the ground, Rishi Persad, and while I imagine he had more than the latest iPhone to record his interviews it didn't always appear so.

Having no-one on the course to tell us what was going on was a massive miss. On more than one occasion Peter Alliss was heard to say that he'd 'love to know' what a player's lie was like or whether he had a line. Wouldn't we all, Peter....

So it's not surprise that the coverage has come in for huge criticism. It came across as amateurish and the BBC should probably have just passed rather than lose what was left of their reputation as part of an IMG/Sky power-play.

However, I suspect this isn't just a one off and this incident has highlighted some of the real challenges sports coverage has in the world we are moving towards. New media platforms are springing up left, right and centre. Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, BT, Sky, Eurosport, ESPN - the list is only getting bigger as every year goes by.

They all need eyeballs to make their business models work and they are prepared to pay for that. If you are looking for evidence of that then the recent acquisition of ATP tennis by Amazon Prime in the U.K. is a pointer for the future.

It should be noted that golf coverage is actually relatively inexpensive compared to some other sports. Sky pay £11m on average for every Premiership match that they show - think of that next time you find yourself watching Burnley play West Brom on a Monday night. Sky are reported to be paying the R&A £15m a year for the rights to the Open.

Golf still attracts a good demographic, consumers who are willing to pay subscriptions and who advertisers want to reach. That is why IMG are confident of getting a better deal for their client, why BT Sport are said to be trying to secure coverage of the Masters and Twitter have been experimenting with coverage of the PGA Tour.

It is only the fans who will lose out if the crown jewels are sold off piecemeal to the highest bidders. Imagine a world where BT Sport has the Masters, Amazon has the US PGA and Sky has the others. A real fan would need a subscription, or one-off payment, to every individual rights holder and the quality could be greatly diminished.

Sky have honed the art of presenting a golf tournament. They are simply exceptional at showing the right shots at the right time, keeping the presenters largely out of the picture but ensuring they add value and minimising the impact of the adverts which are necessary to make the numbers work. They employ the best commentators and the best production crew in the business. Only someone who has endured trying to watch a big event on US TV will truly understand that. Other broadcasters who show just one or two events a year simply won't have that skill and experience and we will be left with more of the dogs' dinner that we are experiencing this week.

Maybe we will see a world where there is one really high quality production team who employ the talent and then merely rent it out every week to different broadcasters? However, given Sky's commitment to the other 48 weeks a year, at the moment that seems some way off.

And finally, there is the perennial old chestnut of growing the game, and the role of TV in that. There was a very good interview with Martin Slumbers, the Chief Exec of the R&A, on Radio 5 Live on the Friday of the Open. Conor Macnamara was asking him whether he thought participation in the game would be diminished as a result of selling the rights to Sky.

Viewing figures for the Open on Sky are a quarter of what they were on the BBC and surely this must have an impact. Slumbers had been highly critical of the BBC's coverage and was eulogising over the move. He basically said that growing the game was more about reaching young people via social media than television viewing figures. He sounded disingenuous and overly defensive.

I suspect that's because he knows that, at its heart, that isn't really true. More people will watch golf on a free-to-air channel than a subscription one, but the economics of life mean that, in reality, that just isn't going to happen again. For all the posturing of the PGA of America about a bold new media model, this week's shambles has been about money and money will continue to dominate.

Going forward I think we need to find a hybrid model, otherwise the next generation won't have an interest in the game. Keith Pelley should be commended for trying new formats and the players seem happy to do their bit - the European Tour social media feed is testament to that.

But when it comes to the actual coverage, the tour need to find ways to get more of the action out from behind the paywall and onto the screens of the nation. And while social media can clearly play a part in that, good old fashioned television is an important facet too.

Maybe the various different golf rights holders can agree a model whereby there are certain common principles in place including a certain number of hours on free-to-view and the role of social media?

The Masters model is pretty good for that in the UK. If you are a real hardcore fan you will pay for the extra coverage and quality of broadcast on Sky, but the BBC will pick up for the masses who just want to dip in. They can be criticised for much, but maybe when it comes to putting on the best show the powers that be in Magnolia Lane know what they're doing after all....