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Will TV Feel Tiger's Pain?

The absence of Tiger Woods due to injury will certainly depress TV audiences for golf, based on past viewing patterns without the sport's top draw. But Tiger-less golf tourneys may be less of a drag on TV ad revenue.

There's little immediate advertising revenue impact because golf ad buys are in place through the third quarter. Of course, one possible revenue impact is that golf ratings drop so low—given that advertisers expected a Woods halo in long-term buys—that it triggers make-good ads. But long-term, advertisers know Woods will be back, and they'll want to be there when he does.

Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson says there's less impact on broadcast and cable network ad revenue than meets the eye. “Most golf sponsors buy the core audience that is there week in and week out,” says Pilson, now a consultant based in Chappaqua, N.Y. “The additional audience that Tiger brings to golf isn't the prime audience that golf advertisers want to reach. It's a bonus audience.” The dependable core golf audience is affluent, older men.

Woods said last week he needs reconstructive knee surgery after re-injuring it when he won the U.S. Open in a grueling 19-hole playoff that was the most watched Monday golf event in 30 years. He'll miss the rest of this year, meaning he'll be off the TV screen for several high-profile tournaments that he won in 2007.

Looking ahead at golf without Woods, ABC and TNT will telecast the British Open July 17-20; CBS and TNT have the PGA Championship Aug. 7-10; and ESPN and NBC have the Ryder Cup Sept. 16-21.

Earlier this year, NBC was crowing about 10 tournaments to come where Woods was expected to play; CBS was next with seven events and ABC with one. With Woods now out of the limelight, the spin from the PGA Tour and its network partners is that it will give them a chance to build other stars. The best-case ratings scenario might be for fan-favorite Phil Mickelson to get hot in Tiger's absence.

But there's no denying TV audiences decline at double-digit percentages when Woods is not among the leaders. The PGA says that TV ratings rise 28% in final rounds of tournaments in which Woods is in contention for the lead. NBC said its June 16 audience for the U.S. Open playoff—a rare Monday telecast—was the best in 30 years.

When Woods surprisingly didn't make the cut for the U.S. Open in 2006, viewing for NBC's coverage that year fell 16% from the prior year and was the lowest since 1982. “Network TV executives have always called Tiger the one athlete who can move the needle on golf's TV ratings,” says John Mansell, a sports media analyst in Great Falls, Va.

“We all know that Tiger's presence significantly increases ratings,” says Phil Sharpe, senior VP of technology and operations for Turner Sports. “He brings in the public at large, not just the avid fans. It's the same thing with baseball or basketball—when you've got a story there, and a character in there, people will come and watch. That's definitely a major part of it with Tiger.”

Glen Dickson and John Eggerton contributed to this story.