A story in the June 23 New York Times described a television show featuring violent surfers as the Next Big Thing for the fickle 18-to-34 male viewer market. Seems that influential demographic would rather watch surfers punching out people in bars than the traditional male-attracting sports, which are baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
Well, at least we know less of them want to watch the traditional sports. The National Basketball Association, for example, not so long ago the beneficiary of the I Love This Game ads and Michaelmania, has been losing viewership share of its finals for five years, the Times reported. Thirty percent of TV households watched in 1998; just 11 percent did in 2003. The other major sports have been going through the same non-growing pains.
Yet ratings for PGA Tour telecasts in general are up 4 percent through the first week of June compared to the same week in 2002, the Tour says. Not bad in a tough TV economy. (The U.S. Open wasnt so good, though. Weekend ratings for it were down 36.7 percent compared to last year, making growth for telecasts featuring PGA Tour players nearly flat year-to-year through that week. Still, that beats the marked decreases in other sports.)
How is it, you rightly ask, that relatively sedate golf competes with knuckle-launching surf dudes?
I think its authenticity. With corked bats, steroids, mailed-in performances, posses, sneaker deals and high-school-skipping draft non-dodgers popping up all over the sports pages, its easy to see why the traditional sports seem more rad than trad. Look at Sammy Sosa during his White Sox years. Look at him now. Whats all that; extra Ovaltine? Things just dont seem real.
But reality shows about surfers living, drinking and competing together, perhaps by playing on the 18-to-34 crowds inner desires, do seem real. And golf, at which it is hard (and counterproductive) to cheat or drug-up your performances, easily maintains a deep vein of authenticity. You compete or you die. No no-cut contracts, no DLs, no guarantees ' youll even lose the lucrative club endorsement deal eventually if you dont perform. Its the last real meritocracy in sports.
So it is that current events in golf must pass through a kind of authenticity filter. Is a proposed change in golf worthy of the game? Is a players behavior consistent with golfs prized authenticity?
Of course, reasonable minds can differ, and unreasonable minds are still connected to mouths, so not all answers are clear. But the same kind of filter that should have saved us from the XFL allowed golf to deal intelligently, for the most part, with the Annika Sorenstam appearance at Colonial. People behaved well, on the whole. Some outrageous things were done and said, but they were recognized for what they were. On the other hand, XFL officials said in the leagues brief developmental phase, with a straight face, that they were encouraging players to date cheerleaders, so as to generate fan-enticing storylines.
Golf is free of thatjunk. When John Daly, who for such a nice guy has more ill-advised moments than anyone I know, suggested that some Tour players were using performance-enhancing drugs, the immediate indignant response left no doubt about where the games values stand. (One colleague invited Daly to crawl back under the rock he came out from.) Suggest steroid use in an NFL locker room and youre likely to get the same look youd get if you observed its hard to get a cab in New York in the rain.
What other developments wait to pass through golfs authenticity filter? Michelle Wie looks like shell get through without a supplemental scan. Her clubs do the talking most of the time, and when she talks, she does it well, and not too much. So what if she needs a ride everywhere? Golf is about getting the ball into the hole, not about being a certain age when you do it.
The only potential problem: A wave of such phenoms (phena?) in golf would give the sport the artificial patina of gymnastics, where it seems youre washed up if youre over 16. How real can a sport be when you have to be a child to be at the elite level? Golf will probably avoid that, though; Wie seems like a diamond in the rough.
How about driver testing? Tiger has suggested there are some illegally hot driver faces on the PGA Tour, and the Tour plans to endorse the idea of having a portable test available to players every week. (Look for that availability to start next season, after the U.S. Golf Associations Implement & Ball Committee signs off on the test in October.)
But some manufacturers are uncomfortable with the portable test, which relies on a pendulum mechanism, saying its not yet reliable enough to be on tour. Others say the presence of a test could erode golfs reputation as a sport of honor. But using the pendulum (when its ready) as a self-policing tool, rather than an enforcement tool, could obviate that concern.
Was Olympia Fields authentic? Only four guys finished under par.
Tom Watson led the first rounds of both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open. Authentic.
Vijay Singh mouthed off about Annika. Not so authentic.
Vijay Singh practices so much he could get his mail on the range. Authentic.
Insert your golf inquiry here: ________. Authentic?
If you play golf, or youre a fan, you know.