Is Tiger Woods Still Television's Most Important Athlete?

(Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)

While Bubba Watson capturing his second career Masters was a nice story, the abysmal TV ratings were the biggest headline of the tournament. Limited drama Sunday contributed to the poor numbers, but the primary reason behind the 7.8 overnight rating on CBS was the absence of Tiger Woods. The rating was the lowest for the Masters since 2004, which fell on Easter and featured Woods finishing 40th.

It’s obvious that Tiger Woods playing well boosts ratings, but is he the most important athlete now in terms of driving people to their television sets?

Below is the Masters’ overnight Sunday ratings from 2004-2014 (numbers are from SportsBusiness Daily’s Austin Karp), along with where Tiger finished:

2014 | 7.8 | DNP
2013 | 10.2 | T4
2012 | 8.1 | T40
2011 | 10.4 | T4
2010 | 12.0 | T4
2009 | 8.8 | T6
2008 | 8.9 | 2
2007 | 9.1 | T2
2006 | 9.0 | T3
2005 | 10.3 | 1
2004 | 7.3 | T22

As you can see, there is a strong correlation between Tiger being in the thick of the race and high television ratings. For those wondering why 2010 is extremely high, it was the first Masters since Tiger’s infamous scandal. Sure, his performance on the course is great to watch, but adding that drama and controversy resulted in a ratings bonanza.

For team sports, it’s difficult to find any single player that drives viewership the way Tiger does. Ratings for the World Series or NBA Finals largely depends on the markets participating and the length of the series.


(Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The three most-watched World Series in terms of average viewers per game were Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals in 2004 (25.4 million), Arizona Diamondbacks vs. New York Yankees in 2001 (24.5 million) and Florida Marlins vs. New York Yankees in 2003 (20.1 million). The 2004 viewership was a result of so many people wanting to see if the Red Sox could end their World Series curse. They Yankees and their huge New York following fueled the 2001 and 2003 ratings, and the 2001 seven-game World Series is considered one of the most exciting ever.

Regarding most-watched games since 2000, both of them were Game 7s. Diamondbacks-Yankees in 2001 led the way with 39.1 million viewers and the Angels-Giants the following year accumulated 30.8 million.

Baseball, however, does not rely on a single athlete to drive ratings. MLB relies on big-market teams competing or just a very exciting World Series in general.


(Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA Finals has followed a similar pattern. The past four have had strong, but similar ratings because three had LeBron James and the other was between the large-market Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. James moves the needle more than anyone in today’s NBA, and the drama surrounding him and his team was the biggest reason for the high viewership. In 2011, the Miami Heat were arguably the most scrutinized team in NBA history, so eyeballs were glued when they took on the Dallas Mavericks. In 2012, LeBron won his first NBA championship against fellow superstar Kevin Durant. Finally, in 2013, one of the most exciting NBA Finals ever between the Heat and San Antonio Spurs attracted a large TV audience.

Yet, LeBron was also a part of the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever, when his Cleveland Cavaliers took on the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, mustering a 6.2 rating. Yes, James was younger and less established, but the fact that he moved to a much bigger market in Miami helped bolster his worldwide image and the NBA’s television ratings.

Michael Jordan in the 1990s was similar to Tiger in impact. Look at the NBA Finals’ Nielsen ratings from 1990-1999.

1990 | 12.3
1991 | 15.8
1992 | 14.2
1993 | 17.9
1994 | 12.4
1995 | 13.9
1996 | 16.7
1997 | 16.8
1998 | 18.7
1999 | 11.3

Notice four years were lower than the rest: 1990, 1994, 1995 and 1999. The 1990 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers was also the last year Jordan was eliminated from the playoffs wearing a Bulls uniform. The 1994 and 1995 Finals took place during Jordan’s first retirement. And 1999 was the year after Jordan’s second retirement. Keep in mind, the New York Knicks, one of the NBA’s biggest markets, were in the 1994 and 1999 Finals, but they couldn’t command anywhere near the ratings Jordan did.

Additionally, the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan’s last championship, generated the highest Nielsen rating in basketball history.


(Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

The Super Bowl is such a cultural spectacle that it’s going to draw high ratings regardless of the match-up. While bigger markets are going to drive higher ratings, individual players may not matter as much as the match-up.

For instance, Super Bowl XLIV featured Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, two of the best quarterbacks and biggest superstars in the NFL. That Indianapolis Colts-New Orleans Super Bowl drew 106.5 million U.S. viewers. On the other hand, Super Bowl XLVI, which pitted the New England Patriots against the New York Giants, garnered 111.3 million U.S. viewers. Two big-market teams clashing in a Super Bowl rematch, after the Giants had ended the Patriots’ perfect season four years before, trumped a match-up between two quarterbacks on the top of their game. Obviously Tom Brady is elite as well, but the New York market and the revenge factor helped the Super Bowl more than Eli Manning did.


(Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The best sport to find an athlete that could compare to Woods’ effect on television ratings is tennis. Both are individual sports, and feature tournaments that are among the most prestigious in all athletics.

On the men’s side, Roger Federer won five straight U.S. Opens from 2004-08. He was easily tennis’s biggest superstar, and when he was in a Grand Slam Final, it was must-watch television. Yet, his ratings fell short to the all-American 2002 U.S. Open Final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Additionally, two of the three lowest-rated U.S. Open Men’s Championships have featured Federer (Federer-Juan Del Potro in 2009 and Federer-Andy Murray in 2008).

Federer draws audiences, but the difference in ratings between his match versus Murray in 2008 (2.32 million viewers) and Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic in 2010 (2.17 million, the lowest-viewed U.S. Open Final ever) is not that much. As a disclaimer though, the 2008-2012 U.S. Open Men’s Finals all took place Monday rather than Sunday due to weather delays.

On the women’s side, Serena Williams was the best recent example of an athlete whose sport solely depended on to drive an event’s ratings. This past U.S. Open Championship, Serena-Victoria Azarenka generated a 4.9 overnight rating, while on the men’s side, Nadal-Djokovic only was at 2.8. In the 2011 and 2012 U.S. Open, Serena in the final also produced the same result: the women’s championship having a higher rating than the men’s. That is an impressive feat for any female athlete.

The key for tennis is that audiences prefer Americans to be in the U.S. Open Championship rather than star power. Wimbledon’s abnormally high ratings last year when Andy Murray won prove that if a person from that country is in the final, more people will be interested.

That isn’t the same in golf, as a tournament outside the U.S. like the British Open will have higher ratings when Tiger does well and lower ratings when he doesn’t. It’s clear that even as his talent has diminished, Tiger is a key ingredient for successful golf event ratings, and should be classified as the athlete most important to television ratings worldwide.

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