Tiger Woods has spent 623 weeks—the equivalent of 12 years—as the world's top male golfer. Today he's a distant fifth. Serena Williams has spent two years of her career as the world's No. 1 female tennis player. Now she isn't even in the top 10. American female golfer Christie Kerr lost her top ranking last October, and no American male has been the best tennis player since Andy Roddick in 2003.
As tennis turns its attention to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which runs from Mar. 7 to 20, and the PGA Tour settles in at Doral in the second week of the Florida Swing, American domination is gone. In all four tours—ATP and WTA in tennis, PGA and LPGA in golf—none of the top players hail from the U.S. What's more—particularly on the tennis side—the talent pool of young up-and-coming Americans is as shallow as a desert stream in Indian Wells' Coachella Valley.
The brightest spots for both sports appear to be on the television screen. Ratings for Golf Channel are, thanks to its recent promotion in the NBC Sports-Comcast hierarchy, up around 59 percent, which executives at the newly formed "Golf Channel Powered by NBC Sports" credit to cross-promotion across NBC's family of networks. Likewise, Tennis Channel's growing broadcast partnership with ESPN/ESPN2, and the cross-pollination involving such talent as Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors, have raised the channel's profile and, likely, acquisition cachet.
While the two sports have been endlessly compared, perhaps at no point in their timelines have they been such mirror images, as "old" stalwarts Federer, Roddick, Woods, and Phil Mickelson fade, and Europeans Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray (tennis) and Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, and Graeme McDowell (golf) battle to stay at the top in their respective games and corporate boardrooms.
Tennis: Deserted, for the Moment
Regardless of nationality, every ranked male and female tennis player gathering in Indian Wells for the next two weeks owes a debt of gratitude to the world's fifth-richest man, Oracle (ORCL) founder and Chief Executive Larry Ellison At an estimated net worth of $39.5 billion, according to the most recent rankings of the world's wallet elite, Ellison stands on a fortune that grew $11.5 billion in the past year, thanks to a 30 percent jump in Oracle shares. Under Ellison, the software giant has over the years acquired 75 disparate companies worth $40 billion—likewise, in 2010, Ellison increased his personal sports holdings, a portfolio that has included America's Cup yachts and Formula One cars, by acquiring the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the tournament, often called tennis' fifth major, held there every March.
Last year's event drew a new presenting sponsor—BNP Paribas (BNPQF:US), the French bank that spends virtually all its sports marketing budget on tennis (it also sponsors the French Open and the just-completed BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, among other events). The Indian Wells competition also drew a tournament record 339,657 spectators, the largest gathering of tennis fans globally outside of the sport's four Majors.
This year's tournament sees increased seating capacity on many of the outside show courts and the addition of Hawk-Eye Line Calling technology on all courts—something no other tournament in the world can boast and a testament, perhaps, to owner Ellison's high tech mindset. (Britain's Hawk-Eye was recently purchased by Sony (SNE) in a deal reportedly valued between $24 million and $33 million.)
The tournament also features new sponsor activation. Grupo Modelo's (GPMCF: US) Corona Extra, as part of its multiyear sponsorship agreement with the ATP World Tour, is introducing the Corona Beach House, a bottle-cap-shaped tent in the midst of a plaza that will include appearances by top players and no doubt become a desert haven for thirsty fans.
World No. 3 Djokovic, fresh off his Australian Open victory and moving up the on-court earnings list at No. 7 ($22.85 million career, in the lead in 2011 with $2.58 million), will no doubt try to use the BNP Paribas Open to raise his profile with would-be American sponsors. Unlike his golf counterpart, World No. 3 Briton Luke Donald (who had the admitted advantage of attending Northwestern University on a golf scholarship), Djokovic has no U.S.-based sponsors—racquet provider Head (HEAD:Vienna) and Italian clothing manufacturer Sergio Tacchini are his biggest deals, compared with Donald's clothing sponsor Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) and Fortune Brands' (FO) Footjoy.
The USTA, finally, announced two weeks ago that the organization, along with former stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, are partnering with First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let's Move campaign to fight childhood obesity. Public service announcements developed around spring tennis events "promote tennis as one way to spend" a child's recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day.
The PGA Tour: Peachy
As the field at this weekend's World Golf Classic event at Doral takes shape, it has become clear that one factor is dominant on the PGA Tour so far this year—no one golfer is dominating. As Sports Illustrated's Gary Van Sickle puts it, "I think we do have a theme. … The torch has been passed, and we're watching the battle to see who's going to pick it up and run with it. It's like horses jockeying for position as they enter the final turn at the Derby. There are a lot of possibilities. It just may take a while to settle."
One thing that hasn't exactly seen "consistency" is sponsorship at Doral. The tournament, established in 1962, has bounced around from being known as the Doral Open Invitational, Easter Open, Ryder Open, Genuity Championship, Ford Championship, WGC CA Championship, and now the WGA Cadillac Championship. Regardless, the tournament attracts most of golf's top 100 players, including early-round pairings this year of World No. 1 Kaymer playing with Westwood and Donald, and, right behind them, McDowell playing with Mickelson and Woods—the 25th time the latter two have been paired.
The PGA's Florida Swing is always a springtime prelude to The Masters, and this year, golf executives in Georgia have more to crow about than the dogwood-and-azalea-festooned "toonamint" held every April in Augusta. According to findings by the recently released Georgia Golf Economy Report, in 2009, the year the study was conducted, Georgia's golf industry generated a total economic impact of $5.1 billion, supporting nearly 57,000 jobs with $1.5 billion of wage income.
Georgia's House of Representatives and Senate each presented resolutions proclaiming 2011 as the "Year of Golf in Georgia," and in 2011, two of the four golf majors will be played in Georgia in the same year for only the sixth time in history. The Masters Tournament, the first major championship of the year, will be held Apr. 4-10 at Augusta National Golf Club; and the PGA Championship, the season's final major, Aug. 8-12 at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
"Golf is a billion-dollar industry in Georgia that serves as a leader in charitable donations, a major contributor and driver of jobs, wage income, and tourism," said Joe Steranka, chief executive of The PGA of America. "In addition to the economic benefits to the state, golf is a healthy family activity that all Georgians—young and old—can participate and receive lifelong benefits."
Finally, perhaps to prove to the world that they are no shrinking violets, a group of PGA Tour wives has hired a marketing firm to help them land a reality TV show. The proposed show would be golf's answer to Bravo's Real Housewives and VH1's Basketball Wives. Among the participants are the wives of golfers Bob Estes, Will MacKenzie, and Jimmy Walker.
LPGA: No Desert Wallflower
Like the Indian Wells tennis tournament, the LPGA has experienced a veritable sponsorship renaissance in the past year. Last week, CME Group announced it would serve as the title sponsor of the LPGA's season-ending Titleholders event "for the next three years," according to the Orlando Sentinel. The deal expands CME's links to the LPGA, which had previously included a partnership with CME's Global Financial Leadership Conference. The CME Group Titleholders will be played Nov. 17-20 at Grand Cypress Resort and will feature a $1.5 million purse, including a $500,000 check for the champion, the 2011 season's biggest first prize.
The LPGA's CME deal is the second new sponsorship in the past few months for the women's pro tour, after R.R. Donnelley committed to underwrite the Founders Cup event next weekend in Phoenix. In a year when more and more top-flight LPGA events are going overseas, however, the CME announcement was countered by news last week that State Farm, a growing presence in the men's game, was discontinuing its sponsorship of the LPGA event in Springfield, Ill., after this year's State Farm Classic at Panther Creek Country Club wraps up on June 12.
For now, the LPGA and the Coachella Valley will have their hands full with the Kraft Nabisco Classic at Rancho Mirage from Mar. 31 to Apr. 3. Sometimes, shallow streams do indeed run deep.