Tiger, the tour and the MJ template

In 1993, rumors that Michael Jordan might leave the NBA had been circulating for some time before it actually happened, but that didn't lessen the impact of his announcement. During the Oct. 6 news conference, the look on Scottie Pippen's face reflected the question of millions of people: What do we do now?! And the blankness in David Stern's expression made him look as if he could have been Pip's Siamese twin.

Although most had suspected it was a possibility, no one was prepared for it. Not Jordan's teammates, not Nike. Some will tell you that even Jordan himself wasn't really prepared for the fallout. And certainly, the NBA wasn't ready for his early departure. Like fish out of water, the administrative and front-office people who ran the league flopped around trying to keep the most respected professional sports brand in America from the clutches of a suddenly vulnerable marketing lassitude.

One NBA employee said to me in the beginning of Season 1 without MJ: "Now we have to work. The league isn't going to take care of itself anymore."

Even after Jordan returned to the game in March of '95 -- saving the league, some say -- the NBA went through years before it figured out how to market and run itself without the most popular, mesmerizing, embraceable and influential person ever to wear the uniform.

Now comes Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour.

Same popularity, same influence. For almost 15 years, the Tiger phenomenon has taken care of the tour. He has carried it, as Jordan carried the NBA. And now that his five-month, self-imposed exile from the game is coming to an end, it will be interesting to see how the tour will move forward.

Will the people who run it just lie back and breathe the sigh of relief that comes with dodging a major bullet? Or will they search the tour's soul, internalize the impact of Tiger's absence, and make a plan to deal with the day he officially and forever says goodbye for good?

Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour executive vice president, willingly concedes that the tour is better off with Tiger playing than when he isn't. But …

"Whenever you have somebody that is as impactful as Tiger Woods playing your sport, there's an assumption and perception that everything goes gloom and doom [when he isn't around]," Votaw says. "But if you look at the full picture, that's not true."

As evidence, Votaw cites the growth in prize money in the 15-year period before Tiger joined the tour, along with the tour's current strength and steadiness in reach, quality of audience, charitable giving and economic impact in the communities that host tournaments, among other factors.

"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 of 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 [Nicklaus] and Tom Watson played well into their 40s. Tiger is only 34 years old. And he's not going away for a while."

But the facts remain that everything changes when Tiger isn't playing. Television ratings, product purchases, newsstand circulation for golf-centric magazines, even the number of people who show up to play public courses -- they're said to have dropped as much as 50-80 percent in Tiger's recent time away from the game.

Votaw says that the TV ratings numbers are misleading and that golf's cumulative audience isn't as dramatically affected. Still, in early 2009, USA Today reported on the dips in ratings for tournaments Tiger had won the previous season but missed because of a knee injury the next year. There was a 53 percent drop at the Buick Invitational, a 36 percent drop at the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational, a 55 percent drop at the PGA Championship, a 61 percent drop at the BMW Championship and a 47 percent drop at the Tour Championship.

In a recent BusinessWeek story, Sam Sussman of Starcom Worldwide estimated that viewership for the last day of next month's Masters Tournament could rise more than 60 percent if Tiger makes it to the final round. There is little doubt that the business of golf improves exponentially when Tiger, the best player in the game, is active.

"We're all looking forward to [Tiger] coming back," Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, said recently. "But until then, we're doing perfectly fine. Golf does better economically when Tiger is a major force on the PGA Tour, but golf is still a valuable product for us."

And more from Votaw: "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."

Maybe. But the last thing the PGA Tour should do is assume the sport will survive and thrive simply because it has managed to do that so far. Tiger has been golf's identity for almost a generation now, and there are no guarantees that a LeBron James will be in the wings waiting to resurrect the game. The NBA got lucky (to a degree) with LeBron, but it took a long, long time to find him. The league wasn't ready for life without Michael and spun its wheels for years trying to locate or create or force the next Jordan. Grant Hill. Penny Hardaway. Vince Carter. At one time or another, they and others were tagged as the second or third coming of Jordan, unsuccessfully. (I'm as guilty as anyone of trying to anoint some of those "nexts.")

The PGA Tour should learn from that experience. It should already have a 10-year plan in the works to replace the things Tiger brings. The plan shouldn't include the overt sells that came out of pro hoops in the post-Jordan era because they didn't work. But there are up-and-coming golfers whom the tour could be helping to grow organically into some of the space left vacant when Tiger is gone.

Maybe, for example, it's time for the tour to be quietly pushing, say, 20-year-old Rory McIlroy into our consciousness more than it has so far. He appears to have the game and the personality. Yes, he's from Northern Ireland (five of the world's top 10 players are from Europe right now), but it's noteworthy to notice how popular boxing's Manny Pacquiao, who is from the Philippines, has become in the U.S.

It isn't too late. The PGA Tour is still in position to not have to rely on "LeBron Luck" to avoid a financial and interest meltdown that could take years to overcome if -- and when -- Tiger throws up the peace sign.

But the tour needs to have a plan. If general interest in the sport is in fact falling off at the rate it seems to be, golf could end up reliving the NBA's recent nightmare.

The people who run the organization need to get busy, need to be ready "life preserve" the tour for the prospect of a Tiger-less tsunami. Because when the announcement finally comes that Tiger will no longer be there, their expressions should be something other than blank.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.