By George M. Thomas
Beacon Journal sports writer
ESPN and CBS have a fundamental question with which to contend over the next week or so.
How will golfer Tiger Woods’ withdrawal from the Masters Tournament affect their television ratings?
Woods, sent the golf world and every social network atwitter when he announced on April Fool’s Day that he would miss the pre-eminent event in golf due to surgery for a bulging disc in his back. And it wasn’t a joke.
ESPN will provide coverage of the first two rounds of the Masters on Thursday and Friday with Andy North, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger giving analysis. CBS (WOIO Channel 19) offers coverage on Saturday and Sunday with a team that includes Jim Nantz, Verne Lundquist and Masters champion Nick Faldo.
“The Masters will survive without Tiger Woods,” said CBS chairman Sean McManus on a conference call last week. “When Tiger is in the Masters there’s going to be a spike in the ratings. But I’ve said this many times, the Masters has always been the highest-rated and most anticipated golf tournament of the year.
“That was true before Tiger Woods played in it. That was true when Tiger Woods played in it, and it will be true when Tiger Woods is no longer playing.”
It’s an opinion shared by CBS’s partner in this event.
“It’s a huge disappointment I feel for us in the business of TV,” Azinger said. “It takes away an obvious easy story to write about Tiger and one that you know people are going to be interested in. But it’s still the Masters and it’s still this epic event.”
Despite the optimism expressed from both sides, the reality of Tiger Woods, despite his diminished play in recent years, is that he still moves the ratings needle sending casual golf fans scurrying to their televisions when they know he’s in the hunt for a title.
The tournament’s ratings took a 22 percent hit in the final in 2012 from the year before, according to a Forbes report. The difference? In 2011, Woods was in the hunt for the title, eventually falling short.
Even when he’s not in the hunt, he provides a bump depending on the situation, such as last year when Woods’ alleged illegal drop in the second round caused controversy leading to higher third-round ratings.
That’s called power and there will come a time, sooner rather than later, I suspect when it flickers off.
Another likely reality waits after Woods’ surgery and withdrawal: He’s not the same golfer — and hasn’t been for a while — that thundered on the scene two decades ago, observers said.
“It’s a different vibe for me,” Nantz said of Woods’ absence from the tournament.
He remembered in 2008 when Woods won the U.S. Open on essentially one leg, but wasn’t able to participate in the remaining two majors of the season — the British Open and PGA Championship — because of the injury. Padraig Harrington won both of those tournaments. Nantz said that many around the game believe that Woods, had he been able to play, would now have 16 majors titles.
But the times have changed for golf’s once dominant player, Nantz said, and the feeling would have been different heading into this year’s Masters.
“I think there was a lot of doubt that Tiger’s game was in the kind of condition we’re accustomed to for anybody to assume anything,” Nantz said. “ … It’s a completely different feeling from ’08 when some people wanted to put an asterisk on those major championships he missed.”
When Woods returns, he will not only have to rebuild a game that has gone from formidable to good, but he also might have to assume a diminished role in the sport.
Although the networks partnered with golf now put on a happy face, here’s betting that they aren’t looking forward to life without Tiger.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.