Tigers Return an Economic Boom Hold On

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O.K.; hes back. Now what do we do?
 
Its the question you can expect to hear muttered over and over among the Chief Felines colleagues, who have enjoyed a respite from his feral competitiveness. Also from the tournament segment of the golf industry ' but theyll say it with a smile, not a grimace. The only possible drawback for them in the good news will be the extra work needed to beef up security, media credentialing, parking, and the like.
 
Oh, and trust me: the electronic media are electrified.
 
Everybody who loves and/or covers the game, and isnt insane, is glad to see Tiger back, and maybe pleasantly surprised that its so early, in a match play event. (Take the chance of going home Wednesday night? Very unTigerish. Come back and enter a tournament if, and only if, you think you can win? VERY Tigerish.) Sure, he has an economic relationship with Accenture, title sponsor of next weeks tilt. But we all know he wouldnt be doing this if he werent up-to-the-brim confident.
 
But the golf industry as a whole might want to go decaf on its confidence. Hate to be a downer, but it would be foolhardy to hope for too much of an economic spike out of this return. Thats especially true for the equipment industry.
 
History has shown that the primary beneficiaries when Tiger plays are the people who show it to us. Yes, TV ratings swell up like an injured knee when he plays, and they deflate like a toy balloon when he doesnt. The correlation has been shown too many times for it to be an accident. So next week, it will be NBC and yes, this network, that see the first returns.
 
The PGA Tour will reap rewards, at least in stature if not in immediate dollars. The knowledge that Tiger has returned and wants to compete will certainly make sponsorship sales ' and in this economy, retention ' less of an uphill climb. The Tour has done a great job of sealing up multi-year sponsorship deals against the flood of economic bad news. But good tidings in the form of Tigers return does a lot to plug the few leaks that were unavoidable ' Ginn Resorts yanking its sponsorships, Stanford Financials chief being suspected of fraud.
 
How about the rest of golf?
 
Dont get your hopes up. The economy, of course, is the primary barrier. Judging by the subdued mood at Januarys PGA Merchandise Show, the best most manufacturers are hoping for is to stay where they are. Big profit gains seem unlikely. While there will always be a small segment of the golf-equipment-buying public ' say, 4 to 6 percent ' that can be counted on to try whatever is new in the premium market, such a thin slice does not a golf economy make. For years now, even before the economy tanked, golf has been a near-zero-growth business in which the only way to get anywhere was to steal market share from competitors.
 
Of course, positive thinking is what drives success, not pessimism. For that reason, companies with the wherewithal to do so have been investigating emerging markets, countries where a growing middle class might be persuaded to spend its new leisure time on sports such as golf. China was the obvious choice, and India has been mentioned. But with the economic crisis that began in the United States creeping across the globe, international expansion plans are likely to slow, at least temporarily.
 
Here at home, rounds played were down 1.8 percent in 2008 ' not a lot, which is good. But red ink instead of black, which is bad. And golfs consumables, mainly balls, generally sell in lockstep with increases or decreases in rounds played.
 
But theres another reason we shouldnt expect the hard goods side of golf to benefit much, if at all, from Tigers return. Its this: It didnt happen the first time.
 
Remember 1996, Milwaukee, and Hello, world? The golf industry was giddy. We heard about rising tides raising all boats, about sports revolutions, about a new, perpetually sunny day. And we waited to count the money.
 
And then it didnt happen. There was some renewed media attention to the game ' but it focused mainly on Tiger. He was the newsmaker, after all. There was no significant or lasting increase in participation, as had been hoped. Spikes in equipment sales were episodic, almost faddish (Adams Tight Lies, Orlimars early hybrids) and unrelated to Woods. Nike Golf came of age and did well, becoming a power in a very short time. But they had what no one else did: the man himself.
 
Dont get me wrong. Tiger Woods has been good for golf, very good. Hes been good for sports, for kids (especially his foundation work and its emphasis on education and possibility), for athletics and fitness and inspiration and red-shirted Sunday afternoons. But to attach too broad a hope to even his prodigious power is unrealistic.
 
You want realistic? Check out the people in this game who have the courage to shift the paradigm of what can be fun in golf. The World Golf Foundations new Get Golf Ready adult development program includes a nine-hole game called PowerPlay Golf. It offers two flags on each green: one risk-reward, the other easier. Its a way to blend the games traditions with some new ways of thinking about how modern Americans want to enjoy sports.
 
Hmm. Blending respect for tradition with a new way of approaching the game? Sounds like
 
Yeah. The Returner.