Can Tiger’s Inevitable Decline be Good for Golf?

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By James Neary

This past weekend at the Open Championship, we were able to see Tiger sniff a major victory for the first time since the same tournament in 2013. It seems the entire spectrum of golf fandom clung to our TVs and Twitter feeds to ceremoniously welcome the king back to his rightful place as ruler. But as Tiger made his turn onto the back 9 Sunday in Carnoustie, the inevitable reality of his decline took hold in our minds again. A full-on Tiger comeback would in no doubt be spectacular for Golf in the short, and probably even long term, but in this article I explore the opposite vantage point. Assuming Tiger has begun his descent, rather than continued his ascent, into the history books, I elaborate on the opportunities this case study offers the golf industry.

What the golf world has undergone throughout Tiger’s woes can very easily be likened to an economic recession. Sports Media Watch has a useful table detailing final round viewing tallies from all 4 major tournaments over the past 30 years, found here. As you can see, the numbers coming this year from Tiger’s cumbersome resurgence do show a pretty solid uptick from recent years, but they barely reach over 50% of what they were during his peak. His first major win, the 1997 Masters blowout, marked the beginning of a massive bull run for the golf industry. Every. single. one. of the high-end view counts, in every major, came between that tournament and the 2009 PGA Championship, just a few months before Tiger’s infamous Thanksgiving Day, affair-revealing, career-spiraling crash. Tiger’s dominance in that time period pushed the industry into a new era. After such a sudden downfall of such a massive star, it’s easy to understand why the industry has struggled to recover in the following years. Since 2009, golf’s path has been one of desperate contention. Multiple young and rising stars have attempted to take the torch from Tiger, yet the entire industry seems to be pining for a comeback of unimaginable proportions. I would argue this contention is understandable and predictable, and while golf transitions into the post-Tiger era, there arrive abundant opportunities for expansion and development never before seen in the game.

Economies, industries, businesses, financial entities of all types undergo periods of fluctuating growth and shrinkage. While the pull-back golf has seen during the past 10 years may seem drastic and even dangerous, the viewing numbers at their lowest point are right on par with what they were prior to Tiger’s dominance. Obviously, TV viewership isn’t a pure indication of popularity or economic health in the sports entertainment industry, but it’s a pretty standard candle. I do argue, however, that TV viewership does hold more weight in golf, due to the nature of the season and championships. Having practically every player be present on the course during the TV broadcast, yet having talent disproportionately skewed towards one player, sets the industry up for disaster once said player succumbs to injury or scandal. Tiger’s decline puts the world of golf in a position to welcome a greater abundance and distribution of superstar caliber players. Having the industry’s premium talent distributed more evenly amongst the top players will provide much needed stability in the long run. In this scenario, if number 1 doesn’t show up to a tournament because of a bum knee or exposed mistress, you can be damn sure numbers 2 and 3 will be there to put take advantage. With Tiger dominating the 2000’s like he was, there was nobody there to support the industry as a whole upon his collapse. Now, as his decline from the upper echelon continues, golf is able to more effectively distribute its talent and ratings power throughout the top of the rankings to provide insurance for another Tiger-like catastrophe.

In addition to the new support system golf can establish upon Tiger’s decline, there lies another opportunity golf has sorely missed out on thus far: expansion and diversification. We’ve seen the NBA do it in China and Europe, soccer do it in America, the NHL in the southwest, alongside countless others. Entertainment industries without an eclectic and diverse audience continually fall behind. We’re seeing this playout in real time as post-steroid era Major League Baseball struggles to keep up with the rapidly growing popularity of lacrosse among youths in America and Canada. MLB’s fan base and youth programs were disproportionately concentrated in a single demographic, and suffered as another sport ate up some of its market cap. Although Tiger was the first non-white player to ever win the Masters, having all that talent, power, and potential locked up in one individual obviously dampens diversification. There’s no doubt that Tiger’s rise had an immensely positive impact on the relationship between minorities and golf, but you cannot deny that the concentration of power in him proved incredibly difficult for golf to grapple with upon his descent. His decline will allow more golfers from different backgrounds and cultures to compete for the number 1 spot in golf, and that could do wonders for the industry in the long term.

Overall, Tiger’s reign at the top of golf has been unprecedented, and is likely never to be forgotten. For more than 10 years, nobody came close to this guy. Then, practically overnight, he entered a downward spiral which, until recently, seemed impossible to pull out of. We all hope Tiger will bless us with a thunderous Sunday at some point in the near future. But if that never comes, there remains a silver lining for the golf industry. Being able to more evenly disperse the premium talent among the top players on the tour will provide greater security for both the players and the future in the long term. The decline of Tiger, and superstars in general, positions his industry to make unique and exciting revitalization efforts to restore the tour to its former glory.