Tiger Woods' Masters Absence Sends Television Ratings and Ticket Prices Plunging

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2014

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 12:  Tiger Woods and his caddie Steve Williams cross Hogan's Bridge during the final round of the 2009 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 12, 2009 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It is no secret that Tiger Woods has been the main driver in the PGA Tour’s transformation from a low-budget traveling circus into a billion-dollar organization.

Tournament purses have increased by more than 200 percent since Woods’ arrival back in 1996 while the money players earn in endorsement deals today have increased by at least as much over the past decade. 

During no other 18-year stretch in professional golf have purses increased even remotely close as much as they have since Woods burst onto the scene in 1996.  

Woods has not only made himself boatloads of money through tournament winnings and hefty endorsement deals, but his impact on the game has essentially made hundreds of other golfers infinitely more wealthy than would have been had Woods decided to take up an occupation other than golf.  

Back in 1996, only nine players on tour earned more than $1 million and no one earned more than $2 million.

Last season 82 players earned more than $1 million, 22 players earned more than $2 million, 18 players earned more than $3 million and five players earned more than $5 million in on-course winnings. This doesn’t even take into account the $35 million FedEx Cup bonus fund, nor does it factor in the tens of millions of dollars most of these players would have earned in off-course endorsement deals.  

"Nobody has benefited more from having Tiger in the game than myself,” Phil Mickelson said last week at Augusta National, as reported by Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. “My first tournament in Tucson in 1991, the entire purse was $1 million and first place was $180,000. I wondered if we'd ever play for a million-dollar first-place check. It's every week. It's unbelievable, and Tiger has been the instigator."

This financial windfall that Woods has created for the PGA Tour has, of course, been driven by the millions of new fans Woods has almost single-handedly brought to the game.

And when interest levels are high, the money is always sure to follow.

The millions of new eyeballs tuning into golf telecasts has created much more sought-after opportunities for television networks, sponsors and advertisers.

Woods also brought at least some form of diversity to this new golfing audience, as many people that were historically only interested in sports such as baseball, basketball and football began tuning in to watch Woods’ Sunday afternoon heroics at the majors.

The PGA Tour has in turn been able to charge significantly more for television and sponsorship rights, while players have captured increasing larger endorsement deals from companies looking to jump at the opportunity to use golf as a medium to expose their brand to a large audience.

This has all been good and great for the past 18 years, and anyone that has walked a PGA Tour fairway during that time should walk up to Woods and bow at his feet as a show of respect for the mansions, fancy cars, private jets and richest pension fund in all of sports that Woods has in a very direct way provided to all of them.  

But Woods is now 38 years old and has suffered through numerous potentially career-threatening injuries over the past five years.

So what happens when the time inevitable comes for Woods to step away from the game?

Well if last week’s Masters was anything to go by, the future of the PGA Tour and professional golf in general may not be all rainbows and dollars signs, as it has been for the past 18 years.

Masters ticket prices on StubHub fell by 20 percent the day after Woods announced that he had undergone back surgery and would not be attending this year’s tournament.

TiqIQ, a secondary ticket seller, reported seeing a 66 percent drop in ticket prices for round one of the Masters this year when compared to last year when Woods was in the field.

And this is not some run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event we are talking about here. This is a 66 percent drop in ticket prices for golf’s version of the Super Bowl due to the absence of just one golfer.

This year’s Masters Finale could have been seen as a true litmus test for the future of professional golf as many of the game’s so-called up-and-coming stars were right in the mix heading into the final round, while Woods was at home with a back injury and Phil Mickelson had missed the 36-hole cut.

Bubba Watson was going for his second green jacket in three years while blasting 360-yard drives all over Augusta National.

Jordan Spieth entered the final round tied for the led and was attempting to become the youngest Masters winner ever.

Rickie Fowler began the day just two strokes off of the lead.

Matt Kuchar was right in the mix, as was 54-year-old Fred Couples who was attempting to become the oldest major championship winner of all time.

Yet despite a leaderboard filled with many of the game’s up-and-coming stars, with some feel-good stories like Couples also spread into the mix, television ratings took a nose dive.

The ratings for Sunday’s final round of the Masters were down 24 percent from 2013 and hit its lowest level in a decade.

According to Jason McIntyre of thebiglead.com, the final round of this year’s Masters had the worst overnight rating ever for a non-Easter Sunday.

ESPN’s early-round coverage ratings dropped by 36 and 37 percent on Thursday and Friday, while CBS’s third-round coverage ratings plunged by 30 percent.

This complete nose dive in television ratings can be seen as an ominous sign for the future of professional golf.

While the buckets of cash quickly came pouring in with Woods and the sky-high television ratings throughout the late '90s and 2000s, the cash will just as quickly head out the door as ratings begin to drop and the public’s general interest in a Tiger-less game begins to wane.

The fact that the likes of Spieth, Fowler, Watson and Kuchar couldn't even budge the needle—let alone move it in any significant manner—while Woods and Mickelson were out of the picture should be of grave concern to everyone involved in professional golf.

Golf is right on the brink of entering a new era, and it may not be quite as bright as many would like to believe.

Unless otherwise specified, all statistics for this article came from pgatour.com.