Peak Open viewing figures down 75% on last year

It doesn't look great on paper but are we surprised? Should we be worried?

Henrik Stenson Open champion Henrik Stenson wins golf writers trophy
Henrik Stenson Open champion
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The peak television audience for The Open on Sky on the final afternoon was 1.1 million, compared to 4.7 million on the BBC last year. Should we be surprised? Should we be worried?

UK TV audience numbers for the final round of The Open Championship at Royal Troon show that, at their peak, live viewing figures (combined between Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 4) reached 1.1 million. This compares to 4.7 million on the BBC during the final round in 2015 – when The Open finished on Monday, and 5.5 million in the final round of 2014 when Rory McIlroy was champion.

1.5 million watched the BBC’s two-hour highlight programme on Sunday evening.

On paper, the figures don’t look great and they give easy ammunition for those looking to criticise the move of The Open’s live coverage from the BBC to Sky. But what did we expect? Should we be surprised? Of course not.

Far fewer people have access to Sky Sports than the BBC so obviously the figures were going to be down. Picture the scene: Grandpa in mid July 2014 has sat down in his favourite chair after Sunday lunch and has the remote control… what’s on? BBC1, BBC2… The Open… that’ll do. Picture the scene: same grandpa in mid July 2016 has sat down in his favourite chair after Sunday lunch and has the remote control… what’s on? BBC 1, BBC 2… “Kidnapped” Ah Davy Balfour… that’ll do.

Ok, so we lost a large number of casual TV viewers, the background noise TV types – that is certainly disappointing as they missed one of the great sporting contests of this century so far.

But we shouldn’t forget that anybody who watched The Open on Sky got a feast of golfing insight and expertise to accompany the scintillating action. The new host broadcaster did a tremendous job.

Coverage was totally comprehensive, barely a shot was missed. The experts worked tirelessly in the commentary booth, on the course, in the range and amongst the fans to paint a superbly accurate picture of the 2016 Open.

Last year, when The Open finished on a Monday, the BBC provided no live coverage pretty much until the leaders teed off. We missed hours of action. We weren’t able to see how the course was playing, get a feel for the pin positions or the speed of the greens. This year, Sky were there from the outset every day. If you’d wanted to, you could have watched golf all day for four days – doubtless, many did. And, if you missed anything, you could watch again in the evenings, then again all this week as Sky has been re-showing the live coverage. Basically – Sky’s coverage of this year’s Open was the best that’s ever been done in the UK.

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It’s certainly a shame that the BBC lost interest in one of Britain’s great sporting institutions and weren’t prepared to put resource and investment into retaining it. But, the fact is, they weren’t and we golf fans are fortunate that Sky was there to take on the job.

Should we be worried for golf that the figures are down? Possibly. We need golf to reach as many people as possible right now, as the game struggles to maintain participation figures. Of course, if 3 million fewer people see the Open’s final day live, that’s 3 million people amongst whom just a few casual viewers might have been inspired to pick up a club.

Also, golf is not a popular sport among the general British public who incorrectly choose to use it as an easy symbol of old-fashioned elitism in the British social structure. With the disappearance of live coverage of golf’s premier event from terrestrial telly, it will be easier for the naysayers to maintain and advance a blinkered, negative view of the sport.

But, this was Sky’s first year and they did a fantastic job. As word spreads that watching The Open on Sky was a different experience altogether, with complete coverage and comprehensive analysis, then hopefully we’ll see the viewing numbers growing year on year. Sky’s fresh, technical approach will certainly have appealed more to the younger generation and they, after all, are who the game needs to attract, not grandpa who would happily snooze through anything on a Sunday afternoon.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?