With a Tiger in its ranks, golf leaves NBA in woods

March 26, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

In case you missed it, some little news that's bigger than it looks: Tiger Woods slam-dunked the NBA in the television ratings last week.

He'd already done it once before this year, and he'll probably do it again today since he's in the running in the final round of The Players Championship.

Ordinarily, it can be a mistake to read too much into such ratings, even though everyone does. The nation's TV habit is so ingrained that half of the people are going to watch something, even if they don't like it. Taking the results and forming conclusions about what's hot and not can be dangerous.

But sometimes, the lesson is just too obvious to be ignored.

The NBA keeps waiting for the next Michael Jordan to appear and start drawing in a curious public, but the next Jordan has arrived, and he's carrying a putter, of all things.

The NBA put a game between the Lakers and Knicks before the nation last Sunday, a game between two winning, interesting teams from the largest markets. The league can't offer a better attraction.

Tiger's victory in the Bay Hill Classic drew a larger audience.

Granted, the two events didn't go head-to-head, and the NBA game was on early in the day, when ratings are lower. And NBA ratings often slip during the NCAA tournament, when interest in the college game is high.

But when Lakers-Knicks gets whipped by a regular PGA tour event, not even a major tournament, something is up.

The NBA's fall, marked by sharp drops in attendance and TV ratings in the wake of last year's strike, obviously is more pronounced than anyone thought.

And Tiger is getting big, folks. Bigger than big, as the saying goes.

He started off hot a few years ago, reaching a peak with his win in the 1997 Masters, then cooled off as he adjusted to being a celebrity and a tour regular instead of just the latest new thing. But now he's all grown up, as gracious and mature off the course as he is deadly on it. He's a man in full form, basically, as a person and a golfer.

Not since Jack Nicklaus in his prime, and maybe not even then, has golf witnessed such dominance. Tiger's six-tournament winning streak earlier this year was preposterous, given how competitive and cutthroat golf has become. There's almost no way it should happen, but it did. There's also almost no way a golfer should win 13 straight tournaments in which he led after three rounds, but Tiger has done that, too.

His surging popularity is easily explained. He has shed his youthful arrogance and occasional fits of childishness, evolving into an athlete fans can invest in emotionally. He's also a winner, and let's face it, fans love winners. Watching a winner connects them to excellence and makes them feel better about themselves. That's why Jordan drew ratings and no one is watching the NBA anymore. And that's why golf's ratings crash when Tiger isn't playing.

If Tiger had spent last week goofing around at home instead of playing, the NBA would have outdrawn Bay Hill and avoided this embarrassment. It's not the game, it's the guy.

But that's the lesson the NBA is learning the hard way now.

Oh, sure, basketball is far more popular and mainstream than golf will ever be. The game is probably bigger now among kids than baseball, soccer or any other sport in this country. And the NBA has done a fabulous job of exporting it to the rest of the world.

Still, people just aren't going to watch if they don't like what they see, and the NBA offers a lot not to like these days. A generation of stars who blatantly care more about salary and endorsements than winning. A product so diluted by expansion that half the games aren't watchable.

A sport about individual hype more than team play and winning.

Watching the league panic and scramble is kind of fun, of course, because it thought it had the world by the rim and it doesn't.

The annual rush to anoint a "new Jordan" is almost laughable now, having chewed up Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, among many. Now, it's Toronto's Vince Carter, all because he can dunk and carry on a pleasant conversation.

Earth to NBA: The fans aren't that excited.

And this thing about miking coaches during games to improve TV ratings is bizarre. The average sideline jabber consists of a few grunts, a few exhortations and a lot of techno-garble such as, "Double down on that 2-3 Texaco, Manny, for crying out loud!"

Fascinating.

Yet NBA commissioner David Stern is so insistent that he initially levied monster fines on teams and coaches who wouldn't cooperate, and he's still pushing the idea. He also wants to put cameras in the locker room before games, an idea Indiana coach Larry Bird found so reprehensible that he said he'd just have his players take all their clothes off.

The NBA probably never thought it would come to this, thinking up goofy stunts to attract fans instead of relying on the game and the players.

But the game isn't good enough when Tiger Woods is on the other channel, making like Jordan and turning the impossible into the routine. There's no substitute for substance.

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