AUGUSTA, Ga. — The leg and the back aren’t like they used to be for Tiger Woods. But The Needle? Well, that’s in prime form.
On Thursday and Friday at the Masters, ESPN provided wall-to-wall coverage of Tiger’s return to competitive golf. And — shocker! — on Thursday and Friday at the Masters, ESPN saw massive ratings jumps.
At the Masters, ESPN recorded a 21 percent increase in ratings for Thursday’s opening round linear coverage, a 31 percent jump in Friday’s second round coverage, and the most-watched days of golf ever on ESPN+. More than five million viewers watched ESPN’s coverage of the opening two days at the Masters, an increase of more than 1.2 million viewers over 2021.
The viewership jump was well-earned for ESPN, which blew out its Masters coverage again in 2022. The network dedicated a massive amount of programming hours to Augusta and invested heavily in its on-site presence. Over the first five days of tournament week, ESPN hosted more studio coverage, streaming coverage and live tournament coverage than any other network. ESPN cameras (well, technically CBS Sports cameras working for ESPN) swarmed the grounds at Augusta National, enveloping a tournament already in Tiger-mania.
The ratings jumps reflected that effort, as well as the tournament’s renewed interest after consecutive years of Covid-driven down ratings.
Of course, the network has Tiger Woods to thank for the jolt. The story of the 15-time major champ’s return to professional golf dwarfed the rest of the sports world this week and captured the attention of millions. The eyes of the world were trained upon Augusta National when Woods made his return to the first tee on Thursday, and it seems they’ve remained there through at least the opening two days of coverage.
This should come as no surprise. The “Tiger Effect” is one of the most pronounced drivers of television ratings in professional sports. Events in which Tiger decides to play have long drawn markedly larger audiences than those in which he does not.
“Tiger Woods doesn’t move the needle,” one cliche among sports media executives goes. “He is the needle.”
His recovery from the severe leg injury he suffered in February 2021 and subsequent yearlong layoff only enhanced the intrigue around tournament coverage.
Ultimately, the biggest winners of Tiger’s return could be the Masters’ longtime weekend broadcaster, CBS. With larger audiences likely to tune in on Saturday and Sunday, Woods’ arrival could mean even bigger increases for the weekend. Of course, those numbers will be somewhat dependent upon Tiger’s performance, and after Saturday’s 78, it seems unlikely we’ll see him play Sunday in contention.
Still, that might not matter much to CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus and his friends at “The Eye,” who will almost certainly have The Needle to thank for a heck of a Masters ratings story come early next week.