Grant Woodward: No hope of getting kids into sport if they can't watch it

SOD'S law, wasn't it? The first year that golf's greatest tournament wasn't on terrestrial telly and it turned out to be a belter.

Thursday, 21st July 2016, 8:18 am
Updated Thursday, 21st July 2016, 9:24 am
HISTORY BOY: Henrik Stenson celebrates winning the Open with a record score. But how many got to see it?

Ok, so I realise watching men in questionable clothing hit a ball into a hole isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but bear with me here.

This was sport at its epic best. The titanic tussle between Swede Henrik Stenson and American Phil Mickelson on the final day put the famous 1977 ‘Duel in the Sun’ between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the shade.

And it wasn’t just weekend hackers like me who marvelled at their skill on the Royal Troon turf – the duo’s fellow pros were equally awestruck.

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Stenson’s superhuman score of 63 on the last afternoon was three shots better than Mickelson. Third place finished a further 11 shots back. Effectively, the pair of them lapped the field.

This display of supreme skill was the perfect advert for the sport.

But will it persuade youngsters to pick up a club and whack a few balls at their local driving range?

Fat chance. Thanks to the naked greed of the golf’s governing body most of them didn’t even know it was on.

Having flogged the rights to the Open to Sky, viewing figures were 75 per cent down on the previous year when it was shown on the BBC.

It meant a golfing masterclass which could have driven new blood into the game instead slipped by almost unnoticed thanks to its absence from the screens of the vast majority of British households.

Golf’s top brass at the R&A have consistently defended its shift of the Open from terrestrial telly, claiming it will bring a younger audience towards golf.

What complete and utter codswallop. They only have to look at cricket to see what taking the Sky pound does to a sport.

Once upon a time, millions of cricket-mad children were glued to their TV sets as Ian Botham hammered the Australian attack to all parts of Headingley.

But just over a decade ago – ironically after an Ashes series against Australia that got youngsters more excited about cricket than they had in ages – coverage switched to Sky.

The shift may have netted the England and Wales Cricket Board the best part of £300m in the space of four years, but it’s been draining the lifeblood from the sport ever since. Figures show that the numbers playing cricket at recreational level are in freefall.

The advent of Twenty20 was meant to reverse this decline, but the average number of spectators per game fell after the ECB relaunched the domestic T20 competition, which also happens to be on Sky.

And that’s the biggest culprit. Not to say Sky’s coverage isn’t good, because it is. The problem is that the majority of people just don’t get to see it.

Viewing figures for last summer’s Ashes series were as low as 340,000. Ten years earlier, 8.4m tuned in to watch on Channel 4.

Anecdotal evidence is just as damning. Before getting married and having children, weekends would find me turning out for a local club side. We had two competitive teams and a decent number of youngsters coming through the ranks.

I bumped into one of my former team mates not so long ago. He told me the club is no more, having been forced to merge with another side some five miles away. “We just couldn’t get the numbers,” he said with a weary shrug.

Football has survived the move to subscription channels – but I’d bet far more youngsters get into the sport through playing the latest Fifa video game than actually watching a live match.

Now golf in this country looks destined to suffer the same fate as cricket. You’d hope the sport’s custodians would wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late but I, for one, won’t be holding my breath.

At a time when everyone’s so desperate to get kids active, we need our sports to stop shooting themselves in both feet.