Can golf thrive without Tiger?

Ratings may be down, but network rights contract extended

It has been almost two years since Tiger Woods was involved in a single-car accident outside his estate in the posh Isleworth enclave of Orlando. His personal life has turned inside out, and his golf game derailed. He has had health issues as well, and has not won a tournament since capturing the BMW Championship in September 2009; his last victory at a major was the 2008 U.S. Open.

And many would say Woods has taken the business of televised golf with him down into the bunker.

Though the sport’s core aud of upscale men 35-64 remains substantial (and an attractive one for high-end advertisers), golf has lost a big chunk of the more casual viewers, including women, who would tune in only to see Woods in action. This can be seen in the viewership numbers for recent years, which don’t exactly paint a rosy picture.

For instance in 2008, the four-day Nielsens for the U.S. Open (which spilled over into a fifth day that featured a playoff between Woods, then the world’s top-rated golfer, and Rocco Mediate) cumed a scintillating 47.9 million viewers on NBC and ESPN. The next two years, as Woods’ game began to founder, U.S. Open ratings came in at about 37 million viewers. And this year, in which Woods did not play, total viewers for the four-day event fell to 30.2 million. In golf, lower scores are desirable; in TV ratings for golf, though, not so much.

Naturally, there is always the chance Woods will get healthy, re-discover his swing and claw his way back to the top. His game for the U.S. at the recent President’s Cup showed flashes.

Woods’ popularity was so singular that it’s difficult to see any player able to pick up his mantle.

Luke Donald of Great Britain is the top-ranked player; Steve Strickler, at No. 4, is the top American. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, at No. 3, has gotten a lot of publicity. But can any one of them entice casual fans to watch?

“There’s no one that I know of right now (to replace Tiger),” says Art Spander, Bay Area sports columnist and longtime golf writer. “The PGA Tour keeps throwing names at you, trying out people. Rory McIlroy seems like a good kid, with some charisma. But I don’t think Americans will follow him like they do Tiger.”

Still, the health of golf is all about perception in a “glass half full or half empty” kind of way.

The PGA looks at a tournament as twice as interesting when Woods participates, but the public looks at one without him as only half as interesting, Says Darren Rovell, sports business analyst for CNBC: “People may define the state of golf as when Tiger is playing really well. But the PGA Tour doesn’t look at it that way.”

The weird thing is, the PGA may have a point.

In September, the PGA Tour announced it had agreed to contract extensions with NBC and Golf Channel (both owned by Comcast) and CBS that last until 2021, despite Woods’ uncertain future. While terms of the deals were not disclosed, insiders say the PGA managed to gain increases over its existing deals.

A key reason for that may be due to the meteoric rise in sports rights. While ratings often decrease for certain sports because of audiences drifting to other forms of entertainment, that migration doesn’t seem to be reflected in sports-rights fees.

For instance, in May, NCAA football’s Pac-12 conference signed a 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox for close to $3 billion, the largest rights package for a college sports league. In September, ESPN and the NFL announced an eight-year extension worth $1.9 billion per year, a 72% increase over the average price of the current deal.

And in late October, Telemundo and Fox scooped World Cup soccer rights in the U.S. for north of $1 billion — more than twice what Univision and ESPN had been paying — for four tournaments, beginning in 2015.

“I don’t think (golf) is in that bad of a position,” Rovell says. “They did get a rights fees increase.” Though he allows that the hike is “more a factor that TV rights in general are more valuable than anything having to do with Tiger.”

Ty Votaw, the PGA’s executive vice president of communications, says the PGA Tour operates from a different business model than most sports, with a unique major sponsorship mix that includes financial institutions, insurance companies, automakers, pharmaceutical firms and golf equipment producers.

“Advertisers want to be associated with our sport because of the quality of our audience,” Votaw says, adding that the PGA Tour does not have ratings guarantees in its television deals.

And while the average golf audience may skew older than those of most other sports, Brad Adgate, senior vice president/director of research at Horizon Media, says the need for brand recognition ultimately outweighs demographics.

Moreover, the PGA Tour says its cumulative ratings for telecasts on CBS and NBC this year are up 7% over last season, and up 17% on the Golf Channel.

So ultimately, whether the sport, or its most popular player, can find its way out of the rough — or whether it already has — depends on how one looks at it, and who is doing the looking.