Tiger Woods: No Return in Sight

PGA broadcast partners remain in the dark as to when the sport’s biggest draw may return to the links, as Tiger Woods’ public apology skirted the comeback issue.

In his first public appearance since November 2009, Woods acknowledged that he had engaged in “irresponsible and selfish behavior,” and said he has been “receiving guidance” for his personal issues. Left unsaid was when the world’s No. 1 golfer would return to tournament play.

“I do plan to return to golf one day; I just don’t know when that day will be. I don’t rule out that it will be this year,” Woods said toward the end of his 15-minute appearance. “When I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game.”

Woods’ self-imposed hiatus began on Dec. 2, when he posted a note to his personal Web site telling fans he would be taking an indefinite break from golf. Since he’s been inactive, ratings for PGA tournament coverage have been inconsistent. For example, CBS’ coverage of the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open drew a 2.4 overnight, up 14 percent versus a year ago, but down 48 percent from 2008, the last time Woods played in that particular tournament.

NBC’s coverage of the final round of the Northern Trust Open was down by nearly 50 percent, although Woods’ absence was immaterial, as he did not participate in the tourney last year. Moreover, the 2010 installment of the Northern Trust final was played on Super Sunday.

In the long term, Woods’ disappearing act may have the greatest impact on CBS, which this year will broadcast 20 PGA Tour events, including the Masters and the 91st PGA Championship. That said, Nielsen ratings for all PGA tournament coverage are likely to plummet as long as Woods sits out the 2010 campaign. (NBC will be exposed, as it carries the U.S. Open, and while ESPN/ABC Sports may expect a decline in their British Open deliveries, it should be noted that the world’s No. 1 player missed the cut at Turnberry last summer.)

But make no mistake: Tiger Woods is ratings dynamite, and when he appears in a tournament, ratings double. The reverse also holds true. According to Nielsen, the golfer’s injury-shortened 2008 campaign saw PGA deliveries fall 46.8 percent versus the prior year. Sidelined by an ACL tear and a stress fracture in his left knee, Woods missed every Tour event after his monumental U.S. Open win on June 15. In aggregate, broadcasters averaged 2.43 million viewers over the course of their Tiger-free PGA coverage, nearly half of what they drew in the prior-year period (4.57 million).

Woods plays in about 15 Tour events each year.

As one may well imagine, when the name “T. Woods” appears on the leader board, advertisers are willing to fork over a premium. Per TNS Media Intelligence data, when Woods appeared in a 2009 PGA Tour event, the average cost of a 30-second spot was $104,500. In his absence, that rate declined 30 percent, to $80,200 per spot. TNS’ numbers exclude the four Majors, which generally price out at around $200,000 per ad. The prestige of the Masters (and limited avails) make it the most expensive buy.

Woods’ meticulously scripted apologia––the text ran around 1,500 words and included an explicit reference to his numerous infidelities––was carried by some 15 TV networks, including the Big Four broadcasters, and the four cable news nets. CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business Network also carried the feed, as did ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, Golf Channel, Versus, E! and Univision.

The appearance was streamed live on Hulu.com and TMZ.com.