“It’s not even a sport; it’s just a pointless leisure activity for old white people…”
“It’s worse than watching a filibuster on C-SPAN…”
“It’s like watching grass grow, or paint dry…”
These are some colorful descriptions I’ve heard about -- you guessed it -- the game of golf. And in some ways, these words are not inaccurate. Golf is a boring sport for most people to watch, just ask my dad -- who uses the Golf Channel to help him fall asleep.
But imagine this: imagine that one person had the ability to make the growth of grass something exciting, to make paint drying an inspiring process that you would pay to watch. Imagine that one person could be the catalyst of a paint-drying and grass-growing evolution, could reverse the debilitating stigmas attached to their cultures, and make everyone involved better in the process. What would this near-supernatural influence do for their respective businesses -- and business in general?
Debuting on television when he was two-years-old and receiving $60 million worth of endorsements when he turned pro at twenty-one, Tiger Woods has -- from an early age -- been peddled as the savior of his sport. Unlike other finicky icons (ahem, Bob Dylan), Tiger Woods has coolly shouldered the responsibilities of fame and fortune, embracing the role that was thrust on him with a maturity and poise unusual for someone of his age and early celebrity (ahem, Michael Jackson).
Like tennis before Federer, golf was slipping from the national consciousness before Tiger appeared, and many believe that without him, the game was destined for a dismal future -- perhaps obsolescence. But Tiger’s precision, his restless competitive drive, and really his cold-blooded ability to finish (touchstones of an old school American value system and/or a sociopath), helped change all that.
Today, fans, aspiring athletes, lawn care specialists -- whoever -- have the ability to watch the guy play whenever and wherever, in multimedia. Now we’re at golf 2.0, and this is what it looks like:
On Monday, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open for the third time in his career, claiming his 14th Major Championship and another giant paycheck. As per usual, he did his winning in dramatic fashion. In the 4th and final round of the historic tournament, on the 18th and final hole, Tiger sank a 12-foot birdie putt to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate -- probably the equivalent of hitting a half-court three-pointer at the buzzer in the 7th game of the NBA Finals. The next day, Tiger and Rocco battled it out in an 18-hole playoff, and again, on the 18th green, Tiger dropped a birdie putt to force yet another playoff, or “double overtime,” as the kids say. Anti-climactically, in the first hole of the sudden- death-matchup, Tiger sealed his victory. No big deal, right? Still seems a bit like paint drying, correct?
Wait a damn second.
On Thursday, Tiger followed his already-impressive victory three-days-prior by divulging a little tidbit of information. In characteristically gracious and modest fashion, Tiger Woods informed the media that he’d played the entire U.S. Open with a double stress fracture in his tibia and will soon undergo season-ending knee surgery. He then revealed that he was actually an android sent from the future to destroy us all. Well, not exactly, but…
It is true that Tiger has an unprecedented osmotic -- or perhaps capitalistic effect -- on his sport. According to Ron Sirak at ESPN, whether or not Tiger ultimately proves to be made of alloy, his legacy will not be that of an aberration; instead, it seems that he’s started a trend -- an enduringly positive one. Aspiring golfers have begun using him as a model by which to design their learning of the game. Truly, the fact that he’s reached the pinnacle of his sport and yet remains unjustifiably ambitious is starting to rub off on the business and culture of his sport. His training regiment, for example, is legendary; the guy has completely reconstructed his swing (twice) in the hopes of gaining an extra hair of power, of control. Young golfers are getting a full, multimedia dose of what it takes to be dominant in the sport and are reacting accordingly.
Obviously, the Tiger Effect reaches into and beyond the bottom line. Courses have been altered and lengthened to accommodate him; he’s changed the way golfers train, the clothes they wear, and the equipment they use. He has single-handedly changed not only the business but also the culture of golf, democratizing and, surprisingly, making it more affordable.
The Indiana News Room reported that, since Tiger began swinging his way into history in 1996, more golf courses have been built than ever before -- the majority of them being public -- more adults and youth are taking up the sport, and many of those are being encouraged to get in shape and compete, simply in order to emulate the man himself.
Unsurprisingly, since his announcement that he will miss the remainder of 2008, many publications have begun reporting on the ripple effect Tiger’s absence will have on the business of golf -- branding -- and sports in general. Many are beginning to panic, and Buick has already cancelled many of its promotions. Sam Sussman, director of sports activation at Starcom told the Wall Street Journal that “no one, or no team, moves the ratings more than Tiger Woods.”
Furthermore, the USA Today reported that the recent U.S. Open -- because of Tiger’s clutch performance -- was the third most-watched in the tournament’s history. Nor was his effect on national web-viewership insubstantial; according to the Arbor Networks, traffic to the major ISPs grew as much as 25% during the broadcast. The security agents monitoring the systems had not anticipated the increase in traffic and thought they might be experiencing some sort of web attack…
As it stands, the truth appears to be in the numbers: during 2007, his presence alone boosted TV tournament ratings by 58%, said the New York Times. Sean McManus -- president of CBS News -- worries that future tournaments hosted by CBS will lose a significant chunk of its viewership and may have to give advertisers free ads or make-goods in other broadcasts.
However, it seems that Tiger’s effect on the bottom line may be more complicated than I’d originally expected. Despite my having said that Tiger’s influence on aspiring golfers is positive, Slate reported in January that a study by a grad student at Berkeley -- Jennifer Brown -- found that whenever Tiger entered a tournament, the simple appearance of his name on the roster had a negative effect on the performance of all other players. And apparently the effect was substantial enough to cost each player at least one stroke-per-round. No doubt there is a level of intimidation, of distraction and frustration, when Tiger enters the fray. Now apply the Tiger Model to the non-golfing world and performance in the workplace, and the results seem at least a little counterintuitive.
Even if a company is able to hire someone as outstanding as Tiger Woods, the simple proximity of this employee may cause his or her fellow co-workers to under-perform. When the level of competition is intense and employees feel like the available incentives are paltry compared to that of the Tiger-like employee who will no doubt take first prize, the incentives become less motivating and performance begins to slip. In golf, the reward for first place is often much greater than it is for second, and the payoff drops exponentially thereafter. To do the same in the marketplace would be like offering a new car to your top employee while the second place finisher, which is everyone else, receives a Pez dispenser. Probably a hyperbolic analogy, but you can see why -- in the workplace with Tiger as an example -- second and third level incentives must be of enough value to motivate the rest of your staff.
Imagine that: someone so good at what they do that they can wreak existential havoc on their constituency and alter business paradigms for everyone else.
If you’re running a business, it’s certainly something to consider. But in the meantime, I’m going to go make some paint dry.