Tiger Woods' latest triumph in the PGA Championship is morphing golf from a sedate Sunday ratings also-ran to top-rank sports entertainment rife with timeless drama.
The Woods phenomenon has fueled a quantum leap in ratings for the major links events that defy comparison with recent ratings growth in any other major sport. The ratings for the final day of Woods' drive to victory in the PGA surpassed those posted in the past 20 years, and the 8.8 rating on Sunday, Aug. 21, buried the 3.7 CBS posted for the PGA's final round just five years ago.
That same trend is evident in the ratings for golf's other Grand Slam events. The 6.4 rating ABC scored on the climactic day of this year's British Open was its highest since 1982 (6.0) and more than doubled its rating for the event in '96. The last day of NBC's U.S. Open coverage hit an 8.1, for another 20-year high.
CBS, which carries the lion's share of Tiger and TV golf, has hit an unprecedented 10-plus rating for the final day of the Masters Tournament for the past four years.
As high as the ratings rise as Tiger Woods stalks records, some observers see potential rough spots in the absence of challenges like the one that electrified last week's PGA finish. As David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, puts it, "Tiger against the course is a fun story, but if he's consistently distancing himself from the field, that could be an Achilles' heel for the networks."
On the other hand, let's wait and see. The interest created by Woods' record-setting third Grand Slam victory this year conveyed the scope of his celebrity, as the last half-hour of his big win drew a whopping 17.5 rating with a 23 share.
"He's creating new stories and new drama with every tournament," says Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications and former head of CBS Sports. "Tiger's not just drawing casual fans. He's drawing viewers that don't even watch sports."
In 13 golf telecasts this season, CBS has scored a 5.3 average rating when Woods wins or contends, against a 2.5 when he's not teeing up. Even among the more golf-conscious crowd with annual household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000, all three networks have averaged ratings of 5.6 on golf events when Tiger's tearing it up, versus a 2.5 when he's sitting it out.
Golf ratings among African-American viewers bear that out: Ratings on all networks have hit a 3.9 this year when Tiger's winning or contending, vs. a 1.5 when he's not in the swing.
But when he's swinging, he's hot. Over the past two years, halfway through its current four-year PGA-tour pact, CBS has stopped selling golf in the scatter market, creating its own mini-upfront each September to distribute its inventory in two months' time.
"We have to look at the overall schedule and try to make sure that we're selling advertisers a balanced mix of tournaments," says Scott McGraw, senior vice president, CBS Sports sales. "We don't want to be in the position of having people buy only the tournament Tiger's going to play in."
CBS also doles out prime positions, limiting its PGA sponsorships to eight companies, this year: MasterCard, IBM, Pfizer, KPMG, Monster.com, Oldsmobile, Merrill Lynch and Titleist.
A 30-second spot on one of the Grand Slam telecasts now costs in the range of $150,000, according to ad-agency sources. CBS is expected to reap a windfall of more than $100 million in ad revenue from golf this year, sources report. CBS declines to attach a number to its sales, but McGraw says the network has seen annual ad-revenue increases of 12% to 15% over the past three years. And the market has expanded to absorb the additional inventory CBS has spawned with late-night highlight shows and four PGA specials.
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