When Tiger Woods dropped out of the Masters field last week, I joined a chorus of observers noting that his absence would likely mean a ratings decline for CBS. When Woods is in contention on the final day of the tournament, I noted, ratings fare much better than when he isn’t. Earlier this week, when Sports Illustrated asked CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus about the prospect of a Tiger-less Masters, he downplayed the concern. “We will survive and thrive as we always have with the Masters,” McManus said.
He is right about the survive part. The Masters, as McManus pointed out, is always the most-watched tournament of the year. Here is how the Sunday audience for the four majors compared last year.
The Masters has a strong core audience (median age 57) that would probably tune in to watch the magnolia trees sway in the Georgia breeze.
Thriving, however, is another matter. Tiger Woods proved that star power could take the tournament, and golf in general, to new heights. Without him, CBS will need to find celebrity wattage elsewhere. The problem is that no other golfer touches Woods when it comes to fame. His closest competition is Phil Mickelson. Below are the awareness ratings for nine of the current the top 10 golfers in the world, according to surveys by sports marketing research agency Repucom. (Fourth-ranked Jason Day of Australia is missing because the company has yet to track him.)
More than 98 percent of those surveyed recognized Woods. Nearly 73 percent recognized Mickelson. After that, it’s a steep fall to Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy, at about 40 percent.
Mickelson, or “Lefty,” is much admired among golf fans and has a burdensomely large endorsement portfolio to show for it. He is famous but not famous enough to carry the sport on his own. He works best as a foil to Woods. He is the smiling, slightly paunched swashbuckler to Woods’s surly, muscled machine. For fans turned off by Woods’s sexual escapades, Mickelson offers a wholesome alternative. When Repucom asks survey takers to rate appeal, trustworthiness, and influence, Woods finishes at the bottom and Mickelson at, or near, the top. Of course, you can’t like or trust Michelson or the rest of the field unless you have heard of him in the first place.
Lefty vs. Tiger is a made-for-TV storyline, but it is fading. CBS and everybody else promoting golf will have to run with with Phil and Friends, at least until the next transcendent talent comes along.