The Open’s peak viewing figures suffer big drop on Sky Sports’ watch

Golf - British Open

Critics of the Open’s move away from live BBC television coverage have been given impetus after the peak audience for the first day of the championship dropped by almost 80%.

Related: Soren Kjeldsen revels in Open rain and wind to blow away age doubts

Sky Sports has assumed primary UK broadcasting rights for the first time at this, the 145th, Open, with the BBC reduced to highlights status. The R&A was castigated for the television switch, which was agreed for a five-year period from 2017 in a £15m-a-year deal but subsequently brought forward when the BBC chose to end the deal a year early.

Figures obtained by the Guardian show a high-point Thursday audience of 347,000 at 5pm between Sky1, Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 4. The equivalent peak statistic for the BBC’s coverage in 2015 was 1.5 million.

Viewing numbers will naturally increase over the weekend but there remains a fear within the game that its growth will be harmed by a shift away from terrestrial coverage. The same argument has been put forward for cricket; as a cross-sport comparison, Sky’s Thursday coverage of the Lord’s Test between England and Pakistan peaked at 300,000.

BBC2’s day one highlights show, From Royal Troon, broadcast for two hours from 8pm, had a peak viewership of 1.2 million and average of 1 million. Both figures fall below both the average for the slot and the typical viewing share at that time.

Supporters of Sky and the shift of the world’s oldest major away from the corporation will point to improvements in viewing, including a new starting broadcast time of 6.30am, meaning the first shots of the championship were shown when Colin Montgomerie hit the opening tee shot.

Sky’s innovative broadcasting of events at Royal Troon has also been widely praised. In a statement the satellite channel referred to overall viewing statistics for its first Open as primary UK broadcaster. It said: “We’re delighted with the reaction to our coverage of the Open, which has already seen over 5.5 million viewers across our TV channels plus over two million video views on digital outlets, bringing the youngest ever audience to the tournament.”

On Wednesday the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, was bullish about media agreements, arguing that today’s audiences watch sport in a less traditional way. “I think the package of opportunities to view the Open this year are broader than they’ve ever been,” he said. “The way people consume sports is changing. It’s no longer people sitting and watching for six, seven hours.”

Social media exploded into life after a mobile camera, positioned on Troon’s driving range, briefly burst into flames on Friday afternoon. The device was operating as part of the Open’s worldwide feed, rather than for Sky, and is thought to have encountered problems because of an overheated battery.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Royal Troon, for The Guardian on Friday 15th July 2016 19.03 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010