'Tiger Effect' Didn't Dampen Golf's Popularity With Viewers, Advertisers

Why the Sport Just Keeps Bringing in the Green

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Can you name the top three earning American athletes in Sports Illustrated's 2012's "Fortunate 50" list?

The NBA's LeBron James and Kobe Bryant didn't make it. Neither did the NFL's Tom Brady or Major League Baseball's Alex Rodriguez.

The Masters
The Masters

Instead, golfers Phil Mickelson ($60.8 million) and Tiger Woods ($56.4 million) ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in annual endorsement dollars, winnings and appearance fees. Only boxer Floyd Mayweather ($85 million) ranked ahead because of his two pay-per-view fights. Almost all of the golf duo's earnings came from ad deals. Mr. Mayweather didn't have a single endorsement.

The popularity of Messrs. Mickelson and Woods on Madison Avenue shows why golf has been able to rebound from the economic recession.

Young stars such as Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott are winning tournaments and picking up their own endorsement deals. Mr. McIlroy recently signed with Omega and Nike. Mr. Watson scored a deal with Oakley. Mr. Scott was just named brand ambassador for Uniqlo. These young stars gave the sport a shot in the arm when Mr. Woods missed long stretches from 2010 through 2012 due to injuries and the fallout from his sexual scandals.

Off the course, the PGA Tour signed long-term TV extensions with NBC, CBS and Golf Channel through 2021. The tour is "fully sponsored" this season, said PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw, with partners such as Charles Schwab, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Rolex and Tiffany & Co.

Golf's recent performance "disproves the theory there's a reliance on Tiger," said Mr. Votaw. "We are thrilled he's part of our sport. He's an icon. At the same time, our financial results coming through these last three to four years demonstrate the overall foundation of our sport is very strong."

The PGA Tour's gross revenue was $1.11 billion last year, up 14.7% from $963 million in 2009.

With Mr. Woods reclaiming his No. 1 ranking, and new American players such as Keegan Bradley and Mr. Watson challenging the old guard, ESPN expects healthy ratings for its coverage of the U.S. Open and other tournaments in 2013.

ESPN's Thursday coverage of round one of the Masters saw ratings rise 3% to 2.4 compared to first round coverage in 2012. The telecast averaged 2.9 million viewers, up 7% from last year's first round. The networks two days of coverage of the 2012 Masters drew a 2.8 rating, up 12% from the year before. Mr. Woods' dramatic return to golf in 2010 was the most-viewed golf telecast ever on cable.

"There's a lot of buzz here at Augusta because Tiger's doing so well," said Leah LaPlaca, ESPN VP-programming, at the Master's last week. "Between him, Rory McIlroy, and the good young American players coming up, there's a lot of renewed interest."

Golf's most-watched TV events are the four major championships -- the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship -- and the biennial Ryder Cup. The four majors averaged 6.4 million viewers (watching live or the same day) in 2012, while all PGA Tour events (including majors) averaged 3.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen spokesman Sal Tuzzeo.

Those numbers are chump change compared to sporting events such as the Super Bowl.

But what makes golf so valuable to advertisers and ad agencies are its affluent, highly-educated viewers. And, of course, the decision-makers of corporate America -- from CEOs to CMOs -- watch and play golf.

That audience and the gentlemanly image of golfers enables legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to serve as effective product pitchmen long after their championship days are over.

"How many sports do you see where the athletes call penalties on themselves?" asked Mr. Votaw.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that ESPN's coverage of the Masters last week drew a 2.8 rating. The 2.8 rating figure was for 2012. We regret the error.

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