- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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When it comes time to remember the 2004 golf season, some fans will label it as Vijay Singh's breakout season, but most will recall it as the year Tiger's dominance came to a screeching halt.
The focus on whatever Woods does -- or does not do -- on the golf course might be a fan tendency that could significantly affect the PGA Tour's ratings, in a positive or negative way, in the coming years.
It was four years ago that the Tigermania phenomenon was at its height, but the watch-Tiger-win-or-nothing philosophy still seems to preside over many of America's households.
Woods won nine PGA Tour events in 2000, including three majors. Ratings data that year showed that about twice as many viewers were tuned into events in which Woods was in contention for the title in comparison to those tournaments Woods was either out of contention or had not participated.
This year, as Woods has dropped out of contention on the final Sunday, ratings data from selected tournaments reflects that the same amount of fans aren't watching.
A year ago, 8.3 million viewers tuned into CBS' final-round coverage of the Buick Invitational, which Woods won. With Woods out of contention en route to a 10th place finish this year, even fan favorites John Daly (the winner) and Phil Mickelson (fourth) were not enough to keep ratings high; 1.9 million fewer people tuned in to the event, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Woods' wins in both the Bay Hill Invitational and the Western Open last year boosted ratings to 4.2 million viewers and 3.7 million viewers, respectively. This year, Woods finished those tournaments in 46th and seventh place. Nielsen data reveals that viewership of the two tournaments dropped by an average of 1 million viewers. In fact, the audience that watched the Bay Hill Invitational on NBC this year represented more than a 43.2 percent drop from the number of viewers that watched the event in 2000 when Woods also won.
Three years ago, the PGA Tour signed television deals with six different networks. The four-year value of the contracts, from 2003 through the 2006 season, were worth nearly twice as much as the previous four years.
Tour officials hope to begin negotiating a new deal next summer and insist that they're not concerned that their product is dependent upon Woods' performance.
"When Tiger hasn't been on the top, we've seen the development of a lot of stars," said Ed Moorhouse, executive vice president and co-chief operating officer of the PGA Tour. "I think all the networks appreciate the overall value that we provide."
Certainly that was the case at the Masters, where Phil Mickelson's victory might have overshadowed Woods' 22nd place finish. According to Nielsen data, viewership was up by 154,000 people this year as compared to last year, when Woods finished in 15th place.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem contends that Woods' fall has been overstated.
"He's yet to miss the cut, he's top five on the money list and he's No. 2 in the world," Finchem said. "It's funny how I used to be asked why the other guys can't keep up with him and now everyone asks me, 'What happened to Tiger?' "
But Finchem is also a realist, saying that he doesn't think the tour will experience the rate of growth over the next decade that it had over the past 10 years.
Woods' decline is of course relative to the unbelievable year he had in 2000, a run he may never duplicate. In 2000, Woods averaged a fourth place finish in 21 events; this season he has averaged an 11th place finish, his lowest average finishing place since the 2001 season.
"I think there are still a lot of fans who want to see other golfers take Tiger out," said Stewart Cink, who is having his best year on tour with 10 top-10 finishes and two victories. "I think after they show shot after shot of Tiger, people want to see guys like Vijay and Phil."
More viewers tuned in this year to this year's U.S. Open than the 2003 version, as Retief Goosen held off Mickelson. Still, ratings didn't come close to those of 2002 and 2000, when Woods prevailed.
The value of future television deals in the future will depend not so much on what network executives believe, but how much their advertisers perceive Woods' fortunes are tied to the growth of the sport.
"Tiger had a stretch of golf that will never be equaled," said Rick Singer, director of worldwide sponsorship marketing for IBM, which regularly purchases television advertising on PGA Tour events and is one of three companies that will purchase time for next year's Masters. "So it's hard to say that golf will be hurt because no one will live up to that and there's still Phil, Ernie Els and Vijay to complement him."
Executives with ESPN, ABC, NBC and CBS, which currently share the Tour's television rights with the USA Network, all declined to comment on future negotiations with the tour, though CBS commentator Jim Nantz said at a recent PGA Tour sponsorship conference that he likens the slight decline in interest to "a stock market correction."
The networks have plenty of other deals to think about. NBC is on the hook to broadcast half of NASCAR's season through 2006, while CBS, ABC and ESPN all have deals with the NFL, which expire after the 2005-06 season.
Meanwhile, the pitch is on at the PGA Tour, which now has a marketing office in New York. Tour executives are showing business partners statistics that reflect that the number of people in the U.S. who are interested in pro golf has climbed from 43.3 million to 104.5 million from 1980 to today.
Exactly how interested 35 percent of America is when Woods not in the final grouping come Sunday is not clear. But there's mounting evidence that the Tour's growth over the next couple years could greatly depend on the return of Tiger dominance.
"Many of our fans used to watch to see if Tiger could hold on to the lead," Finchem said. "Now it's a different script. They're watching to see if Tiger can come from behind."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.
4dAlex Perry at Wentworth