Could Tiger Woods be the 'next' Michael Jordan? If the PGA Tour is paying attention, it will learn from the hard lesson the NBA can teach about life after a superstar retires.
In preparation for his column, Scoop Jackson talked to Ty Votaw, executive vice president of the PGA Tour.
Scoop Jackson: The numbers that I keep hearing are staggering. Somewhere between 50 to 80 percent drop-offs in television ratings of events since Tiger [Woods] has been gone. Is it really that drastic? What is the accurate percentage or number?
Ty Votaw: You need to have a broader understanding than just average ratings points. [The PGA] sells title sponsors on a measurement of television called cumulative audience, not an average ratings point. Cumulative ratings are more important to a title sponsor than an average rating because they count the total number of people that watch a given telecast from start to finish. We're on for four days, three hours a day, and that title sponsor's branding -- not just a 30-second spot -- is throughout that entire telecast. They are more interested in how many total people watch than what an average rating point is at any given time. If a rating point is a 1 at the beginning of that broadcast and a 4 at the end, the average rating is what that number is all of the way through, whereas a cumulative rating counts every person that watches the overall telecast. Or what we call "unique people." Those are people that watch the telecast and see that sponsor's branding. Now we deliver over two-thirds of our broadcast televisions inventory to our title sponsors, so they only sell a third of the total inventory of our telecasts on a spot basis or on a 30-second commercial basis.
Jackson: So this whole thing is being overblown? More perception than reality?
Votaw: Understand, what we have always said is that Tiger spikes our ratings in our audience. There's no question about that. You can't have the No.1 athlete in the world play your sport and not have a spike. We would rather have him play than not play. We are benefiting when he plays, there's no question about that. He spikes our ratings and boosts our cumulative audience off of a very heathy base.
Here's an example: In 2007 when Tiger played a full year, the average number of people that tuned in to a PGA Tour event was 26 million people over the course of the four days. In 2008 when he was gone for half of the year, the average number of people that tuned in to a PGA Tour event also delivered 26 million people. Same number. In 2009, that number went up to 29 [million], but that was when Tiger was back. Sure we got a little bit of a bump when Tiger won six times in 2009 and won some of those in dramatic fashion. So to take an average rating point and to say that the events he does play in are 50 percent down, that doesn't take in consideration the cumulative audience throughout the telecast. [The ratings] only take into consideration the average rating per home that are watching the telecast.
Jackson: So the information being put out basically doesn't tell the full story.
Votaw: Right. The other thing that people don't always understand is that Tiger only plays in about a third of our tournaments. In the 47 tournaments we have, he plays in about 16, 17, 18 in any given year. So that means in two-thirds of our tournaments he never plays in, and yet we are fully sponsored and have been for 20 years.
Jackson: Then why is there this belief that the PGA is suffering so greatly without Tiger? It seems like everybody but the PGA is worried about the status of the sport when he's not playing.
Votaw: Because whenever you have somebody that is as impactful as Tiger Woods playing your sport, there's an assumption and perception that [whenever he's not around], everything goes gloom and doom. But if you look at the full picture, that's not true. Scoop, when Tiger came on tour, our prize money was about $68 million to $70 million. Today, it's $275 million. It's about four times the money today than what they were playing for in 1996 when he came on tour.
But remember two things: One, he doesn't play in every event; he only plays in a third of our events, so how does that explain the purse increases in all of the events that he doesn't play in? Two, if you take the 15-year period before Tiger came on tour, from 1982 to 1996, our prize money increased four and a half times over that period. It grew at a faster and larger pace over the 1996 to 2010 period of time Tiger's been on tour. So if you take the two 15-year periods that we are talking about, the PGA Tour -- because of our value proposition -- has increased [our numbers] actually in a bigger way in the 15 years prior to Tiger coming on than in the 15 years subsequent to Tiger coming on.
The PGA Tour has survived and thrived before Tiger Woods, it has survived and thrived with Tiger Woods, and it will continue to survive and thrive after he's gone.
Jackson: And that's the premise I'm concerned about -- that what happened to the NBA when [Michael] Jordan left was going to happen to the PGA, and you all just aren't going to be prepared.
Votaw: Again, I want to reiterate this, we are better with Tiger Woods playing than when he isn't. We are not trying to say that that's the case. But for us, it's not just about the ratings. It's about the reach, it's about the quality of the audience, it's about the charity association [Note: According to Votaw, up to 100 percent of the PGA Tour's net income goes to charity] and the strong economic impact that our tournaments have in the communities in which they play.
Take all of those things together, and it creates an enormous value proposition for our sponsors. And that's why we are and have been fully sponsored. We continue to do a good job in delivering the value proposition that we talked about. And if you look at our history, we have done that.
Jackson: So the PGA Tour is not worried. You all are safe?
Votaw: People said the same thing when Jack Nicklaus left, that the tour wouldn't survive. What are you going to do when Jack Nicklaus goes? And there was a period for time between Jack playing full time on the PGA Tour and when Tiger Woods did, and over that period of time we grew purses and we maintained our sponsorship levels. Keep in mind, people like Jack and Tom Watson played well into their 40s; Tiger is only 34 years old. And he's not going away for a while.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.