For the 13th time in a row, victory in a men’s professional golf major tournament was bestowed upon a different winner. And for the 7th time in a row, the victor won his first major. In this instance, the winner was Keegan Bradley – yes, that Keegan Bradley, of Woodstock, VT, son of Mark Bradley, a head golf pro at a Wisconsin golf and tennis club. Okay, I had not heard of him either before the PGA Championship. But we know him now.
Since golf and tennis are often compared (country club sports for the wealthy folks), let’s swing our attention to tennis where we find a different paradigm altogether. In 2011, Novak Djokovic’s record is an astounding 53-1, his only loss coming to Rafael Nadal in the finals of the French Open. He’s 29-0 on hard courts. Going back over the past few years, if your name isn’t Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer, chances are you haven’t won many tennis tournaments of consequence.
While the pattern of winners could not be more different among the sports, both golf and tennis are sharing a void of casual fans, and that is translating into lower Nielsen ratings. Ratings for Wimbledon’s Men’s Final in the U.S. in 2011 were 2.1; while up a bit vs. last year, that’s way down from 2009. This year’s PGA Championship, despite compelling action and a playoff, posted just a 4.3, down 14% from last year.
Why the shortage of eyeballs? The casual fans are not tuning in. And why aren’t the casual fans tuning in? There are different reasons for each game:
– Golf: parity. While people in sports laud parity (see NFL or MLB for examples), in fact parity hurts ratings. Sports fans love the popular enemy; ever notice how teams (or sports talk-show hosts) that irk people get the best ratings? The Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers – all seem to draw strong viewership. Parity leads to a dearth of big-name stars in individual sports. And with Tiger and Phil each off their game, golf cannot find a star to whom to hitch its wagon.
– Tennis: where are the U.S. players? The 2009 Wimbledon final that scored a 4.2 rating? That was Federer vs. Roddick – a 5-set match to boot. You won’t find a U.S. male tennis player in the top 10. And per results of the July Turnkey Sports Poll, 74% of sports executives state that a “small number of star U.S. players” is the biggest hindrance to growth of tennis here.
These issues are true in general for other individual sports. For example, as a way of improving viewership among casual fans, NASCAR has been trying to boost the star power of its drivers. And it’s working to some degree.
In general, sports tend to be cyclical. 20 years ago, the NFL was about running the ball. Now, good luck finding your team’s fullback. Golf will eventually have its next Nicklaus or Tiger. And tennis will have an heir to Sampras. How golf and tennis hold down the fort in interim will have a lot of say regarding the future of those sports.