Catching Stardom by the Tail, Again

For The Last Decade, golf has been looking for a superstar who could rise to the level of Tiger Woods, a legend who could transcend the sport, score victories on the links and draw millions of television viewers.

In 2018, it found that star: Tiger Woods. The phenom who took the sport by storm in the 1990s and 2000s with 79 PGA tour wins, but who has struggled through injuries and scandals in recent years, played his way back to pro golf’s upper echelon.

Woods’s improbable win at September’s PGA Tour Championship — in front of millions of viewers — capped off his return to the winner’s circle. It also earned him recognition as one of Multichannel News’s Athletes of the Year for 2018.

Woods’s victory in Atlanta ended a personal five-year tournament win drought. More important, it put him and golf back on top of the sports pages.

It also restored Woods’s personal brand to lofty levels — so much so that WarnerMedia later this month will roll the dice on a first of its kind golf pay-per-view event featuring a match between Woods and rival Phil Mickelson.

“We’ve seen that he continues to capture the imagination of viewers,” HBO executive vice president Peter Nelson said. “As he has reinvented his game, he has reinvented himself and his appeal.”

Meteoric Rise

Woods has been the sport’s biggest television draw since he burst on the pro golf scene in 1996 at age 20; he won his first major tournament, The Masters, a year later. But heading into 2018, the now 42-year-old Woods had been mostly absent from the PGA’s tournament leaderboards.

Years of injuries and a rash of personal scandals, including an embarrassing 2017 DUI arrest, threatened to permanently sidetrack his golf career.

“The way that his career collapsed added to the drama of his returning, and the fact that he was so far gone and removed from everything and came back, is very appealing for viewers,” TV sports consultant Lee Berke said. “When it comes to sports stars and celebrities, America gives people second chances.”

Woods found his stroke again this past summer, finishing second in the U.S. PGA Championship, his highest finish in a PGA major tournament in nine years. CBS, which aired the final rounds of the tournament, was the beneficiary of Woods’ resurrection, generating a 69% increase in household ratings for the tournament compared to the previous year, according to the network.

“There have been only a handful of athletes who can actually move the television ratings, and none of them have had as big an effect as Tiger Woods,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “When he is in contention, the ratings go through the roof. It’s a guaranteed lock.”

In September, Woods won his first PGA tournament in five years, finishing first at the FedEx Cup playoffs’ Tour Championship tournament. In the process, Woods’ performance helped NBC and Golf Channel set ratings records.

NBC’s final-round coverage of the Tour Championship was the network’s mostwatched golf event since 1991 and the most-watched round in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs, which began in 2007. Overall, viewership for Golf and NBC’s four-day coverage was up over 130% over last year and finished as the most watched Tour Championship on record, NBC Sports Group said.

Woods’ overall presence on the golf scene in 2018 also helped Golf deliver its most watched year ever and NBC’s best year of PGA Tour coverage since 2006, per the programmer.

“The massive gallery that followed Tiger up the 18th fairway at his win at the Tour Championship was matched by record viewership across NBC Sports’ platforms this past year,” NBC Sports Group president of golf Mike McCarley said. “Golf is experiencing a surge in momentum with Tiger and the young stars of the Tiger-inspired generation atop leaderboards.”

Rebuilding the Brand

Berke said Woods was able to not only reinvent his golf game in 2018, but build his image as a popular brand back up as well. “There is such an obsession about him,” Berke said. “He has been able to develop a glamour and mystique around him, as well as a level of interest and performance that no one else in golf has been able to match.”

Woods’s brand is so appealing and so hot that WarnerMedia is producing a first-ever PPV golf match featuring Woods and Mickelson that will tee off on Black Friday (Nov. 23). The event will retail for a suggested $19.99 and will feature an 18-hole duel between the two golf superstars for a $9 million winner-take-all purse.

“We couldn’t have scripted [Tiger’s win] any better leading up to the event,” said Craig Barry, chief content officer for Turner Sports. “Tiger is one of the most iconic athletes ever in any sport, so we have an opportunity to create an event that can not only showcase Tiger as well as Phil, but can also create an opportunity to tell the narrative of [Tiger’s] story over the years.”

The matchup is so big that WarnerMedia-owned premium programmer service HBO is dusting off its award-winning 24/7 documentary series, typically slated for big pay-per-view boxing events, to follow both golfers as the match approaches.

“The mano-a-mano nature of this matchup, as well as the history of the rivalry and the legacy of both competitors almost necessitated us to do a 24/7 documenting a story like this,” HBO’s Nelson said. “It’s going to be a can’t miss-event.”

Added Berke: “There are very few brand names in golf. Tiger is one of them and Mickelson is the other, but of the two Tiger is the superstar.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.