Not that long ago, the scoop on golf phenom Tiger Woods was that he was on his way out, headed downhill and probably done with golf. After multiple joint surgeries and a very messy and public divorce, Woods appeared to hit bottom. He started losing endorsement deals and then, even more unthinkable, stopped winning golf tournaments.
Fair weather fans looked for new heroes to cheer on. TV networks and PGA tournament directors desperately tried to prop up new “legends in the making.” But the young guns, despite their prowess, just didn’t sell like Tiger. Ratings fell. Some brands stopped selling golf apparel altogether. Years went by, and the sport that had captured the nation’s attention was rendered an afterthought for the average sports fan.
Tiger returned, and then, thanks to his back, he was gone again. More surgery, more therapy and more delays followed, accompanied by fretting from golf-related apparel and entertainment brands who couldn’t find a new superstar.
Finally, after another long absence, Tiger returned, and he seemed to understand the notion that he now carried the hopes of both networks and brands with him. NBC built up the story, and audiences came. Tiger’s fans returned in droves, both at the matches and at home watching on TV. Months went by, and, though he didn’t win, Tiger remained competitive, showed clear vim and passion.
Then, five years after his last tour victory, Woods won at the Tour Championship. Ratings, comparatively, went through the roof, beating the same tournament year-to-year by more than 200 percent. In fact, according to the Associated Press, Sunday’s final round was “the highest rated telecast” in FedEx Cup playoff history. That’s more than a decade.
The incredible jump in numbers prompted NBC Sports president Mike McCarley to opine that “Tiger’s win was an unforgettable event in golf,” with “record viewership across NBC Sports’ platforms.”
Really, an “unforgettable” win? Yes. That’s the brand power of Tiger Woods. Golf wasn’t prepared to lose him, so the sport and its industry brands were caught flat footed. Now, at least for the time being, he’s back. That means two things: One, it’s great for golf, and, two, golf needs to start looking, now, for its next Tiger.
Tiger may be back, but he can’t roar forever. Pro golf needs to begin building a new brand-defining figure. They don’t come around often, but the sport will struggle if it doesn’t find a way to plan ahead for Tiger’s eventual retirement. Until it does, golf won’t be the same with Tiger.