After Tiger: The PGA Tour learns a painful lesson

Until the fall of Tiger Woods, professional golf had been shielded from the business axiom that lack of diversification kills.

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Forget the television ratings from this April’s Masters. Never mind that, compared to last year, 38% more Americans turned on their televisions to watch the tournament’s final 18 holes. Forget that the leaderboard, with Phil Mickelson holding off a returning Tiger Woods, featured the biggest PGA draws of their generation. If you squinted, it could have been five or six years ago, when every tournament weekend was complemented by a corporate bacchanal and there seemed no limit to professional golf’s popularity and revenue.

Times have changed. It’s hard to say who’s fallen further: Woods, busted for tomcatting around with a dozen-odd cocktail waitresses and porn stars, or the financial and auto sectors that, until the Great Recession, had been responsible for almost a third of the PGA Tour’s sponsorship money. (When Woods joined the tour in 1996, its players shared $66 million in prize money. In 2010, they’ll divide a pot of $280 million.) The outcome, though, is unquestioned. After more than a decade of boom, tough times have beset the business of pro golf.

In a March article for The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler hung this correction around Woods’ neck. The extraordinary growth of the business of golf these last 15 years, he argued, was almost entirely down to the hype around Woods (and to the incredible way he validated it, beginning with his first green jacket in 1997 just months after he turned pro, and continuing across more than a decade of dominance). The PGA Tour made its brand synonymous with his, and used his star power, never mind his remarkable ability to put the ball in the hole, to add zeroes to its bottom line. ‘The Tiger Bubble’ was the result, fuelled by advertisers, clothing and equipment manufacturers, and lucrative broadcast deals with CBS and others that created as many showcases as possible for Woods and pumped hundreds of millions into the pro game.

Now Woods is back. Despite his fourth place finish at the Masters, missing the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship, and his injury-shortened play at TPC Sawgrass, he will be a presence on tour even if he plays fewer than his usual 16 or 18 tournaments. But Woods alone may not be able to right the listing PGA ship.

That Quail Hollow is no longer called the Wachovia Championship is as good an indication as any of the tour’s plight. The PGA is trying to replace nearly a dozen title sponsors for next year’s tournaments — commitments of $6 to $12 million per tourney — and its lucrative broadcast deals are soon up for renewal. Even had Woods’ peccadilloes remained unreported, the tour would be scrambling to deal with the fallout from the past few years of chaos in the financial system. But over the last decade the tour has let its identity become so synonymous with Woods that it’s now struggling to find a fresh pitch to sponsors.

‘The PGA Tour relied so much on Tiger, and it’s realizing now that it focused way too much on him,’ says veteran Globe and Mail golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein. ‘To put all of your emphasis on one person in any sport I don’t think is a sound move. And now it’s hurting them in some ways, because they haven’t promoted their other players well. To imply that he was the game was never a good practice on their part.’

While there’s no indication that Woods’ personal problems have caused other golfers to reconsider their own extracurricular behaviour (if any), his travails, and those of the tour, have been a wakeup call for his peers. The tour is now leaning on its golfers to start doing more for its sponsors — to make more time for the personal appearances, the hospitality tent drop-ins, and the private lessons and rounds that sweeten the pot for corporate buy-in.

Says Bill Paul, tournament director for the RBC Canadian Open, ‘In other sports, you sign a contract and you get what you get. In this sport, it’s up to you to earn your paycheque. In an economic downturn, the piece of the pie the players can get has shrunk, and so they have to make themselves better. They have to be good individuals out there, not just inside the ropes from Thursday to Sunday, but when they’re doing outings for corporate sponsors.’

The tour’s 16-player advisory council seems to understand the need to de-emphasize Woods, and is going to push the tour’s rank and file to do more. The tour will also hustle to promote a new generation of stars, like 21-year-old Justin Bieber lookalike Rickie Fowler, without overemphasizing any one player and repeating its mistakes.

On the form he showed at the Masters, Woods still seems a good bet to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournament wins; but the revenue records the tour set in the last decade, before the bursting of the Tiger bubble and the broader American economic bubble, are unlikely to be improved any time soon.