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Masters could shine light on golf’s TV ratings problem

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Golf has a ratings problem.

The week-to-week grind of the PGA Tour has essentially become No Need To See TV, raising serious concerns about what it means for the future of the game.

Now comes the Masters, the first major championship of the year and traditionally a ratings behemoth.

If Augusta National produces its usual stellar numbers, it could be an unmistakable sign that the PGA Tour’s ongoing rift with the upstart LIV circuit is causing more and more casual viewers to tune out.

“It’s certainly one possibility,” Masters chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday on the eve of the opening round. “Certainly the fact that the best players in the world are not convening very often is not helpful. Whether or not there’s a direct causal effect, I don’t know. But I think that it would be a lot better if they were together more often.”

LIV Golf, armed with the seemingly limitless resources of its Saudi backers, has doled out billions of dollars to lure some of the game’s best players away from the established PGA Tour — an impressive list that includes reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm and five-time major winner Brooks Koepka.

Even though the two sides reached a merger agreement 10 months ago, there is little sign that they are close to working out all the fine print. Which means the best players from each tour only get together a few weeks a year, leaving a pair of watered-down circuits for viewers to chose from the remainder of the year.

Increasingly, it would seem, the ratings show many have decided to tune out altogether.

— The final round of the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open drew just 2.38 million viewers, a stunning 35% plunge from the previous year, according to Sports Media Watch.

— The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill was watched by 2.29 million on its closing day, a 30% dip from 2023 and the tournament’s worst fourth-round number in seven years.

— A riveting finish at The Players Championship couldn’t move the needle, its average of 3.53 million viewers representing a 15% slippage from a year earlier. In fact, the ratings for all four rounds of the Players were down from their 2023 levels.

It’s not like all those lost viewers have simply switched the channel to LIV, which is seeking to spice up a staid ol’ sport with 54-hole tournaments, shotgun starts, loud music and a team competition within each event.

The upstart circuit — which so far has failed to land a major TV deal, leaving it far down the dial on The CW — barely registers in the ratings with viewership numbers generally in the low hundreds of thousands.

PGA Tour player Peter Malnati, who won the Valspar Championship three weeks ago, believes all the talk about money in the PGA-LIV showdown has turned off many fans.

“People are just sick of the narrative in golf being about, you know, contracts on LIV, purses on the tour,” he said. “They want to see sport, they want to see people who are the best in the world at what they do, do it at a high level and celebrate that, celebrate the athleticism, celebrate the achievement.”

Malnati said some of his fondest memories growing up were watching Michael Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls to an NBA championship and Tiger Woods’ record-setting victory at the 2000 U.S. Open.

“I didn’t care one iota what Jordan’s contract was,” Malnati said. “I didn’t care one iota what the winner’s check at that U.S. Open was.”

He surmises that nothing has changed with today’s fans.

“Obviously, this is a business, and to the top players who drive a lot of the value in this business, we’ve got to compensate them fairly,” Malnati said. “But I think we’re doing that above and beyond, and the narrative, the storylines, the conversation needs to come back to the product on the course and what we do.

“No kid dreamed when they were watching Jordan dreamed of having his salary,” he went on. “They didn’t care about that. They dreamed of being in that moment, hitting that shot. I think that’s what our fans care about, too, and that’s what they want to see.”

Of course, there’s another issue at work here. While no one doubts the skill of today’s top players, neither tour has a mesmerizing figure such as Jordan or Woods, someone who really moves the needle.

Scottie Scheffler may be the world’s top-ranked player, but he can walk down nearly any street in America without being recognized.

Compounding the issue, the first three months of the PGA Tour season have produced a string of nondescript winners, from Grayson Murray to Austin Eckroat to Stephan Jaeger. Some great storylines, to be sure, but more suited to the hard-core fan than the drop-in viewer.

This is Masters week, however, which has never had any trouble drawing eyeballs to the screen.

All the top players are at Augusta National, and millions will be watching when the green jacket is handed out Sunday evening.

By Monday, when the numbers are calculated, everyone should have a better idea just how much the PGA-LIV feud has contributed to the dwindling viewership all those other weeks.

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