Tiger Woods' return revives an old complaint. But does it have merit?
A certain 42-year-old made his return to competitive golf this weekend, and by any barometer, it was an auspicious start. Tiger Woods looked healthy and spry in his strolls around Torrey Pines, and for a brief period on Sunday, he stepped into a time machine, showcasing a formidability that made Tiger "Tiger." Even his detractors would admit, it was everything one could possibly want to see.
How much they saw, however, is another issue.
Complaints regarding Tiger media attention are far from new, going all the way back to his fledgling celebrity in the fall of 1996. His intrigue and capacity to thrill were unmatched, yet the coverage of the 150 other players in any given field on any given week, so the reasoning went, was sacrificed in pursuit of Tiger time. Since Woods was dominating his competition, these sentiments, though noted, often drifted into the ether.
However, such criticism returned during the Farmers Insurance Open, only this time a tad more amplified. Don't believe us? Type "Tiger coverage" into the social app of your choosing, and watch the uproar cascade from your screen.
Do the grumblings have merit? On the surface, the protests are logical: A large portion of the telecast was focused on a player ranked outside the world's top 600 who was never truly in contention.
Pragmatically … it's Tiger freaking Woods. Warts and all, he continues to be sun of the sport's solar system.
"He may be the biggest name in sports, matched only by Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali," says Neal H. Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and president of Pilson Communications, Inc. "Does he still move the needle? The answer is yes."
It's a notion supported by the numbers. According to CBS Sports, Sunday's final-round coverage of the Farmers earned a 2.9 overnight rating, up 38 percent from last year's broadcast (with no Tiger playing the weekend after he missed the cut) and the event's highest-rated Sunday in five years (an event won, not coincidentally, by Woods). Saturday pulled in a 2.3 rating, its best mark in seven years and 53 percent over 2017.
"When he plays, the networks are going to give him coverage," Pilson says. "And the fact is the public wants to see that coverage."
To say nothing of the context and setting. With ocean views and a rich history (which heavily features Woods), Torrey Pines has a fair amount of prestige attached to its name. In that same breath, it's a late January event, a time that's historically struggled to garner eyeballs outside the golf diehards. Failing to utilize the platform Woods presented—not just his prominence as one who transcends normal viewership, but his comeback narrative and all that goes with it—would have been a slight to the event and everyone associated with it. Moreover, the Farmers boasted a decent field, yet lacked marquee names like Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. Players that typically command similar, if not entirely the same, treatment Woods received.
Then there's this: the Tiger coverage wasn't obstructing anyone's rightful spotlight. Yes, his play received a heavy presence throughout tournament coverage. But considering most of those that tee it up early Saturday and Sunday aren't in contention, why wouldn't the networks showcase a story with broader appeal no matter Woods' position on the leader board? Come Sunday afternoon, the focus was rightfully on the leaders, and the marathon playoff didn't make mention of Tiger's return.
"Those that complain about it just don't understand the dynamic of sports television," Pilson said. "Or frankly the economics of sports in general."
Admittedly, labeling critics as short-sighted—or merely Tiger haters—is painting with a broad brush. Some fans, no matter their rooting preference, like player diversity in their presentation. (A complaint that's been registered on the networks even in non-Tiger events.) There's also the risk of overexposure. Showing most of Woods' shots is one thing; dissecting swings on the range with absolutes can be nauseating. If this latest comeback is to be sustained, the media—including print and digital—will need to pan out from its Tiger close-up, if ever so slightly.
But it's worth remembering these are merely first steps for the 14-time major winner. That Tiger's return is on center stage should not be a surprise. And Woods, in the present and future tense, remains captivating to the masses. Until they respond differently, the media's work will continue to reflect that interest.
"The heightened attention is warranted," Pilson says, before adding, "especially when he plays well."
A qualifier that, at least for now, is unneeded.