The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar
August 8, 2014
By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
It’s the end of an era. The younger generation doesn’t want the product that’s been delivered for decades. Older, loyal fans won’t transition over to the new faces on the screen, resulting in lower ratings and ad dollars, fewer sponsorship deals, pretty much the end of the world as we know it. Chaos will undoubtedly ensue.
This scenario could well describe the unease PGA of America officials and their television partners feel as they prepare to face what looks like a Tiger-less weekend at the PGA Championship at Valhalla – currently at +3, our striped hero Woods looks like he might miss the projected +1 cut. But it more closely recalls the widespread doomsday predictions made on Friday, May 22, 1992, when 30-year “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson taped his final show, viewed by more than 50 million, before handing the reins to “upstart” Jay Leno.
At the time, a Gallup poll showed fans preferring Carson to Leno nearly 2 to 1, with even the under 30 demographic leaning heavily towards Carson. A USA Today letter to the editor from one Pati Bemis of Yakima, Washington, summed up many peoples’ thoughts. "I have a feeling the ratings will drop with Jay Leno,” Bemis wrote. “He doesn’t have the charisma that Johnny has." Even famed columnist Jimmy Breslin declared, "I imagine Leno is an extraordinarily nice fellow, but he is not going to make it with ’The Tonight Show.’"
Fast forward to 2014, when fans and pundits alike are predicting the end of golf as we know it with the decline of Tiger Woods. Even with the rise of some of the game’s top young players, including Open Championship winner Rory McIlroy (currently in the lead at Valhalla and on track to win his third tourney and second Major in a row), the charismatic Rickie Fowler, and Lagardere Unlimited young guns Harris English and Jordan Spieth, the absence of Woods in the game in any real capacity has definitely dealt a blow to TV ratings and golf participation alike.
In Louisville, the year’s final Major is a sellout. PGA officials reported advance ticket sales for the tournament are the highest in the 96-year history of the Championship, with about 50,000 spectators forecast to visit Valhalla on each day of official tournament rounds, and ticket purchasers attending from all 50 states and 46 countries.
More than 3,500 volunteers signed up to work the event this week, and more than 100 local and national companies purchased corporate hospitality facilities.
All told, according to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s office and the Louisville Sports Commission, the Louisville region is expecting up to a $100 million economic impact from this year’s PGA Championship. The event has created more than 1,000 jobs in Louisville, and will raise about $500,000 for local and regional charities and $2.5 million in tax revenue. The tournament is also reportedly generating 24,000 local hotel room nights.
The PGA Championship is not exactly up there with Louisville’s signature event – the Kentucky Derby – in terms of the number of visitors it attracts. But the $10 million PGA event is "a prime opportunity to showcase Louisville on a global stage,” Mayor Fischer told Rick during an interview this week on Rick’s national Yahoo Sports Radio show “Beyond the Scoreboard.”
Beyond Valhalla, golf’s annual economic impact across the nation is still close to $70 billion, and supports more than two million jobs. But as well cited by a New York Times story on August 5, the sport, and its inherent country clubs and resorts, has “a Generation Y problem. Young adults do not flock to the fairway the way baby boomers did, and young business travelers are disinclined to commit four or five hours to a single game.”
From 1996 through 2013, according to D.K. Shifflet and Associates, a tourism and travel research company cited by the Times, “the average age of a hotel guest rose by roughly a year, to 46; during the same period, the average age of a hotel guest who played golf went up by two and a half years, to roughly 49. In 2013, only 22% of travelers under 33 played golf when they stayed at a resort, compared with 42% of baby boomers.”
While Woods cannot be solely blamed for the decline in an interest in golf among Gen Y and millennials, his absence has had a direct impact on lower TV ratings for all golf tournaments in which he was not a contender on Sunday – meaning pretty much all of them recently. Even McIlroy’s 2-shot win over Fowler and Sergio Garcia at the British Open two weeks ago, with Garcia challenging most of the way, was down 28% from Phil Mickelson’s win last year and tied ESPN’s lowest rating since the tournament moved over from ABC in 2010.
When Woods showed up at Valhalla on Wednesday, his unexpected arrival after a seemingly serious back injury last weekend breathed new life into the televised tournament, showing crowds jamming the driving range, an online “Tiger Tracker” brought to life, and Golf Channel going commercial free for a whole hour just to follow his every practice swing. Execs at TNT and weekend broadcaster CBS were no doubt jumping for joy. But unless Woods goes really low on Friday afternoon, that may be in vain.
After a somewhat rocky start, Leno did just fine in Carson’s footsteps for 22 years, and Jimmy Fallon, with his popular musical skits and Thank You notes, is finding his way after Leno in turn stepped down last winter (albeit to lower ratings – with TV’s fragmentation, no one will ever pull the numbers Carson did in his prime).
And like the “Tonight Show,” nearing 75 years on air, after Tiger hangs it up for good and Rory turns 30…then 40…golf will persevere. In part, because it’s a generational sport, handed down from dad to kid. In part, because it’s slowly accepting trendy modifications (Hack Golf, Glo Ball) and focusing more attention on golf lifestyle products.
In that vein, Zynga announced on Thursday that it reached a deal with Woods on a series of social games for mobile devices, and it’s worth noting that the two best-selling shirts in Valhalla’s enormous PGA merchandise tent are McIlroy’s Saturday and Sunday attire, and Woods’ black and red Sunday shirt.
Perhaps PGA execs should crib Fallon’s playbook and send Zynga and Nike a Thank You note.
Follow Rick Horrow (@RickHorrow) and Karla Swatek (@kswak) on Twitter.