Tiger Woods shattered records at the 1997 Masters, becoming the youngest winner (21) by the widest margin (12 shots) and giving golf its highest TV rating (14.1) in the cable era. The tour met with networks a month later and reached a four-year deal worth about $650 million, twice as much as the previous contract.
The summer after Woods completed his 'Tiger Slam' by winning his fourth straight major at the '01 Masters, the tour negotiated the 2003-06 contract that was worth close to $900 million. What also helped is that the deal was done in July, two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks plunged the economy into a deep recession.
The next round of negotiations might be a little more sticky.
The tour is expected to start meeting with networks next summer, and Tigermania is at an all-time low. Woods has gone 10 majors without winning, matching the longest drought of his career. His only victory this year was in February, and three players - Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson - have grabbed most of the headlines.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is optimistic as ever.
Even though Woods has proven to be the only player who can spike ratings, Finchem finds compelling story lines with Mickelson winning his first major and contending in the other three; and with Singh pursuing Woods at No. 1 in the world ranking and having a chance to break his single-season earnings record.
Finchem also notes that with the economy slowly turning around, the tour already has signed up 10 title sponsors through 2010, the end of the next TV contract.
'I think we're in a reasonably good place,' Finchem said in a recent interview. 'I don't think we're going to see the kind of growth rate over the next five years that we've seen in the last five or six years. On the other hand, we're going to see growth in our charitable contributions, growth in our purses and growth in the overall fan base.
'And that's what is important in the long run.'
Complicating matters is that the PGA Tour probably will have to get in line when it comes to a new TV contract. The networks face a busy year in negotiating deals with the NFL and NASCAR
'It's going to limit golf's flexibility,' said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. 'One is, they take a lot of money out of the market. Whatever happens with the NFL and NASCAR will influence PGA negotiations.'
What also concerns Pilson is the rising cost of doing business in golf. He said network profit margins are not nearly as high as they were, although Pilson is not convinced that networks are losing money on golf.
Finchem attributes any shrinking margins to the state of the economy.
'We just had a three-year recession,' Finchem said. 'No one made money during the recession. But I think it's improving nicely. And again, you have to remember that a very significant percentage of all revenue that goes to the networks is from sponsors, and we've been fully sponsored.'
One area where there is little room for debate is the ratings, which indelibly are tied to Woods' performance.
David Toms recently asked Finchem what he thought about so many international players winning. What prompted the question was upcoming TV negotiations.
'I've had a couple of older players, even Senior tour players, say with the TV deal coming up, it would be great for Tiger to be winning and dominating,' Toms said. 'Because TV ratings go up when he's playing well.'
That much was clear at the Masters, which many believe was the most thrilling Sunday at Augusta National since Jack Nicklaus won in 1986 at age 46. Mickelson birdied five of his last seven holes, making an 18-foot birdie on the 18th to win by one shot over Els.
And yet, the Sunday overnight rating of 7.3 was down about 20 percent from the previous year, when Mike Weir defeated Len Mattiace in a playoff. Woods didn't contend in either Masters.
At the PGA Championship, which featured the first three-way playoff at that major, the overnight rating of 4.9 was slightly higher than when Shaun Micheel won at Oak Hill in 2003 - but it was down 41 percent from 2002, when Rich Beem held off Woods at Hazeltine.
The Los Angeles Times reported that going into the NEC Invitational, ratings were down from last year in 17 of the 30 rounds Woods has played on the weekend.
And if Woods does turn his game around in time for the next round of contracts?
'I think there was more of a forecast the last time around on the surge in golf with Tiger hitting his stride,' said David Carter of Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. 'The Tiger factor was built into the last contract. You wonder if the next time around, whether they can draw upon that even further.'
Pilson, however, does not believe TV negotiations are tied to one player - even if that one player is golf's biggest star. The reason Woods spikes ratings is because he attracts the mainstream audience, while everyone else appeals to strictly golf fans.
But as Pilson points out, golf fans aren't a bad audience for advertisers.
'Both the PGA Tour and the networks understood that Tiger wasn't going to win every tournament, and he was probably on a run that could not be sustained,' Pilson said. 'Golf has a solid, reliable audience - a good demographic mix, well-educated, affluent. What they basically win or lose with Tiger is the casual golf audience.
'What they fundamentally sell is the golf audience.'
Still, it all goes back to the time Woods was holding court with Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke, regaling them with adventurous tales and some of the risks involved with diving.
'Just be careful down there,' Bjorn told him. 'Our future earnings depend on you.'
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