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Tiger Woods' return to golf could mean a massive Masters

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Image Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesWhen Tiger Woods announced yesterday that he’d be returning to professional golf on April 8 for the Masters tournament in Augusta, Ga., speculation immediately began: What does this mean for one of golf’s biggest events? Will ratings spike? Will the production of the live coverage change? Should the town of Augusta expect a bigger media frenzy than usual? EW dug in to find out what exact the impact will be for the tournament, Tiger, and Augusta.

RATINGS: CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus, whose network is airing the tournament on April 10 and 11, certainly has high hopes for viewership: “I think the first tournament Tiger Woods plays again, wherever it is, will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years,” McManus told a Sports Illustrated reporter just two days before the news of Woods’ return was revealed. “When you look at the fact that he gave a very simple press statement with no questions and every broadcast and cable news network in America carried it with great interest, I think that is an indication that whatever he does has enormous interest.”

The truth is that even without a scandal, Woods was already golf’s biggest draw, and having him near the top of the leader board during the home stretch of a tournament makes a big difference in terms of viewership. The Masters captured their biggest numbers in 2001, when 15 million viewers tuned in to watch Woods win his second of four green jackets. Likewise, the 2003 Masters tournament, when Woods finished in 15th place, drew just 9.5 million viewers, the tournament’s lowest viewership in the past decade. And it isn’t just the Masters. The three highest-rated U.S. Open airings on NBC in the past 10 years were when Woods walked away with the top prize, and both the highest-rated U.S. Open and PGA Championship came during years that Woods won.

“It’s going to bring a lot of people who don’t usually watch golf to the television set,” says Larry Novenstern, an independent media consultant, of the upcoming Masters. “The Masters is the pinnacle of golf, but when you combine that with all of the fodder that has surrounded Tiger over the past months, you’re looking at a huge event.”

The ratings spikes, of course, hinge on whether Woods makes it to the weekend. (The first two days of the tournament, on April 8 and 9, are qualifying rounds that air on ESPN, which could also experience a nice boost in viewership.) “If Tiger is in the hunt,” says Dick Friedman, a senior editor for Sports Illustrated, “then you could be talking numbers that approximate those for an NFL playoff game. Which would be staggering for this sport.”

So does that mean CBS will be raking in lots of additional advertising dough? Not necessarily. The Masters coverage comes with very strict rules that stipulate a limited number of commercials, which were, of course, sold well in advance of the news about Woods’ return. So what’s in it for CBS? First off, it looks good to have increased viewership, which has been quite the trend with live, watercooler events lately. And, of course, “The network still gets excited because it gives them a huge platform,” Novenstern continues. “There’s a little promotional time in there, so they can promote some of their other stuff, whether that be sports or entertainment programming.”

LIVE COVERAGE: According to a spokesperson at CBS Sports, the network “plans to cover the Masters as it does every other year.” Masters coverage has always been dignified, so it’s unlikely CBS will produce a racy featurette focusing on Woods’ scandal. “The Masters is arguably the most cherished property in TV sports, and the networks have to tread the sacred turf softly,” Friedman says. “The green-jacketed folks at Augusta monitor every remark assiduously. The anchors and analysts have to be not merely respectful; they have to reverential. Accordingly, expect them to limit their comments firmly to Tiger’s on-course performance.”

But truly, a win by Woods has big implications. “If he wins,” Friedman says, “that post-round interview — traditionally as dynamic as watching the grass grow on the 18th fairway — and green-jacket ceremony will be must-see, even for non-golf fans.” If that happens, whatever Woods says will likely be covered and spun by every news network and entertainment- and celebrity-focused program.

LIFE IN AUGUSTA: A different crowd certainly may be descending on Augusta, Ga., for this year’s Masters. TMZ reports that tickets sold through brokers skyrocketed $500 in one day to $2,400 since the news of Woods’ participation. But the Masters has been a big deal and the event of the year in Augusta for decades. “It has been sold out every year since the ’60s or ’70s,” says Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The number of people attending the event is not expected to change this year.”

But, White adds, “Based on the many media inquiries we’ve received since the announcement, Augusta certainly expects more ‘buzz’ leading up to and during the Tournament this year.” While no media is allowed on the greens at the Masters, and a finite number of tickets have already been sold, there’s no doubt that this year Augusta will be rife with interested parties ranging from gossip reporters and fans who’d never watched golf before but want to be near Woods’ first foray back into golf — and life in the public eye.

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