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More Millions for the PGA Tour

By John M. Ross,
Tiger Woods
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Thanks in part to the star power of Tiger Woods, PGA Tour prize money doubled in four years. (PGA of America)

The news siphoned off some of the broad attention on the British Open, and its impact on the game was positive - hopefully might be felt for years to come. For the present, it's going to make a lot of golf millionaires happier and richer.

This was the reaction to the report that the PGA Tour had completed negotiations with its television interests, and that its new pact would bring in an estimated $825 million for TV rights. Early speculation had hinted that tour officials were shooting for $1 billion, but no one was shedding tears at the conclusion of the four-year deal that runs through 2006.

That spins out to a 50 percent-plus increase over the current contract that runs out at the end of 2002, which in turn means still-larger purses for the tour and still-larger checks for its pension fund. The latter, insiders say, is already the most generous on the entire sports scene.

Under the current contact, the total prize money on the tour doubled in four years and finally hit $185 million. The average winning check has hovered near $600,000. Under the new pact, it is likely to be closer to $1 million. That is a substantial boost for the tour players, although there aren't many needy cases on the circuit. The money list through mid-July indicated that 34 players already have banked $1 million each, and even the player holding down the No. 100 spot has pocketed almost $330,000. And, the season is only half over.

The whopping increase is not only a coup for the PGA Tour, but it also underscores the game's remarkable growth as a sports attraction and a respected vehicle for the advertiser. Golf has been steadily cutting into the powerful grip held by the major sports - baseball, football, basketball - on the spectator sports scene, and now rates serious consideration from Madison Avenue's biggest ad budgets.

Of course, most of the credit for the PGA Tour's huge forward leap goes to Tiger Woods. And it is well deserved. Still only 25 and in his fourth year on the tour, Tiger has attracted a new audience to the game and the tube with his spectacular play. On figures tabulated for last year's play, Woods boosted TV ratings by more than 65 percent for tournaments in which he played. And when he was in contention, the numbers were even higher.

Oddly enough, it was Woods who was at the center of an explosion that rocked the golf world barely a day or two after the joyous news of the new TV deal was revealed. From New Zealand came word that Michael Campbell, its No. 1 player, and some others were planning to boycott the New Zealand Open next January if Woods is paid an appearance fee to play.

Well, the fee is not just a fee. It's an enormous $2-1/2 million. And as stunning as this revelation was to the New Zealand players, the follow-up announcement by the tournament organizers sent them up the wall. In order to underwrite the cost of the fee to Woods, the organizers announced they would increase the price of the weekly tickets for the event from $20.50 (U.S.) to $205 (U.S.).

That's ten times the cost of last year's ticket. And Campbell and his mates have a right to be boiling mad. The purse for the event has been pegged at about $200,000 (U.S.), with a first place prize of almost $30,000 (U.S.). That's for winning. All Tiger has to do is show up, play four rounds, and he'll get 85 times that amount. Even if he shoots 75 or more each round.

Tiger's handlers have put a substantial price tag on his services, but this isn't the first incident. He collected similar fees last year in the Dubai Desert Classic and the Deutsche Bank Open on the European Tour. While appearance money is banned on the U.S. PGA Tour, it is totally permissible on the foreign circuits, and the Americans reach for it whenever they can.

In this observer's opinion, the appearance fee, especially one of such size, is damaging to the game's good image. Damaging also to Tiger, who, with huge sums already coming to him from almost every direction, takes on the posture of a money-grabber. He received bad advice from his IMG team on this one.

Michael Campbell's stand is quite heroic. It's mostly a matter of standing up for the golf fan, the fellow who supports the program year in and year out. The intended boycott could wreck the tournament, especially if the fans rally to Campbell's side for his good deed. Without a substantial ticket sale at inflated prices to back up the fee, the check to Tiger could make like a rubber ball.

Which gets us around to the subject of money for our sports heroes again. Regretfully, the matter comes up all too often at the water cooler, on the train, or at the club, and the sports scene in general is becoming quite jaded for many. Today, the sports headliner is not judged on the size and scope of his performance, his won-and-lost record or batting average, but on the dollar amount of his contract or annual earnings. Indeed, I find more people talking about Tiger's millions than the strokes of magic he executes on the course.

I suppose we should simply acknowledge that this is a different day - the day of the dollar - and get on with it. There was a time, and I look back on it fondly, when the sports pages rarely delved into the matter of big bucks. Speculation over the dollar size of the "live" gate of a major heavyweight championship fight would be an opener - or the contract negotiations with a major baseball star, when fans waited in suspense to see if their man was going to get that monster $50,000 raise he was seeking.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh on our sports heroes or too quick to brand them as greedy grabbers. Only last week I read that Kelsey Grammer will get $1.6million for each episode of his hit TV show, Frasier, next year. And that Rush Limbaugh will take home $250million for chatting with his vast TV audience of Conservatives. They're performers, true. But most pro athletes believe they're performers, too, and entitled to a similar pay scale.

Many will agree with that, but I think it is having a damaging effect on sport. Perhaps I'm simply old-fashioned, but I think sport loses some of its wholesomeness when the dollars pile too high. Fans no longer look upon their heroes with pride for their marvelous accomplishments, but now view them with envy because they are so rich, rich, rich.

Golf has achieved its glittering image over the years without the hype of big money. Its first superstar was Bobby Jones, an amateur, and his figure, knickers and all, looms over all the others who have followed. Hopefully, his example will keep the game on the right path.

Undoubtedly, the new PGA Tour contract with the key television outlets is a notable achievement, especially at a time when the economy is soft and advertising budgets are being chopped. To put it in proper perspective, I flash back to a time in the late Seventies, when I was trying to convince the TV people that they should cover the final round of the World Cup. It was a Sunday event, and that was the basis for the answer: "Who would look at it? Sunday is for football, not golf."

And that was the response everywhere I went. Eventually, we did it on tape and it aired around midnight. How times have changed! Of course, that was before cable TV came along and put out the welcome mat for new programming.

The new TV deal could be a plus for the fans. It is divided among the three major networks, as well as a handful of Cable outlets, and more events will be covered. But the viewer should know that he's going to be required to chip in for some of this huge cost, not unlike the folks in New Zealand. Cable fees could jump a little, but the biggest impact is likely to be the interruptions for commercials and promos.

Then again, everything comes with a price tag!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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