For Love of the Game? Many Watch Sports for Athletes

William JoyContributor IMay 15, 2009

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 10:  Tiger Woods reacts to a missed putt on the 12th hole during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 10, 2009 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Why do people watch sports?

Some might argue that they do it for the love of the game. Others would say that they just wish to see their favorite team play. Nevertheless, many times people watch sports because of a specific athlete.

On any athletic team, it is common to hear that no one player is bigger than the team. Yet as often observed over the history of sports, a player can become bigger that the sport itself.

According to the Nielsen Company, during the period between June 16, 2008 and February 26, 2009, golf saw its lowest television ratings ever.

Coincidentally, the eight tournaments that occurred during this time were the exact same ones Tiger Woods missed while he was recovering from knee surgery.

The largest drop came during the PGA Championship, which had a 66 percent drop in viewership. However, golf is not the only sport to see a correlation between the loss of a star athlete and a loss in viewers.

Before it was renamed Versus in September 2006, the network known as OLN—the Outdoor Life Network—was nicknamed the “Only Lance Network” because of its reliance on Lance Armstrong’s appearance in the Tour de France each year.

Unfortunately, in 2006 the network would have to do without the superstar for the first time since 1998. According to Initiative Futures Worldwide, the average viewing in the United States decreased 52 percent.

Maybe this decrease is just coincidence.

However, another possible reason for these dramatic changes in ratings is that people do not watch sports because they love the sport, but instead because they love the athletes that play them.

Interestingly, when Lance Armstrong returned to cycling for the Tour of California this year, Versus had an average viewership of 185,000—an increase of 300 percent.

While he was a 14-time All-Star with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. His greatest impact, however, may have been on the ratings of the sport.

Jordan’s last season was in 1998. That year the NBA Finals pulled in a rating of 18.7, its highest ever.

Ever since his final season (not counting the short-lived stint with the Wizards) the NBA has seen a drop similar to the current stock market, showing its lowest rating ever—6.2—during San Antonio’s sweep in 2007.

The point is simple.

What would baseball be without Babe Ruth or Willie Mays?

What would basketball be without Jordan?

Golf without Woods?

Cycling without Armstrong?

Can the 20.2 percent increase of viewers for Los Angeles Dodgers games after August 1 of last year really be attributed to anything besides the fact the Manny Ramirez had just been traded?

It is true that no player is bigger that the team, but many times the athletes can and do become more important than the games they play.