News & Opinion

Pay to see Woods-Mickelson? No, thanks

Hey, I’m still upset that I couldn’t see Ali-Frazier I. And that was 47 years ago. How do you expect having to pay for seats at video ringside for golf is going to go over?

Wednesday’s release of details of the ballyhooed Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson made-for-TV match included a big lemon to suck on. Turner Sports will air and stream the event live Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving, Bob Harig reported for ESPN.com. The plan at this point is for the winner to take all of the $9 million purse.

The sour taste: the event will be pay-per-view. Yep, just like mixed martial arts and wrestling. Oh, and we don’t know how much yet. Get back to ya on that.

Heft a foot onto the rail of the virtual barroom that is social media, and you'll hear all manner of opinion about why it's a bad idea to charge for the Woods-Mickelson match. A broad vein of this view is that presenting the match as a pay event only makes a sport with a reputation for inaccessibility even less approachable. Anything but free TV for this tilt doesn't "grow the game."

What does that even mean? I've heard "grow the game" over so many desks, meeting tables, comment boxes, microphones and earpieces for so many years, with so little explanation, that the phrase has become nearly meaningless. More people playing? People playing more often? Paying more? Women? Kids? Full rounds, short courses, SNAG Golf, college?

Fact is, the only parts of the game that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ever have grown in a measurable, consistent way are TV ratings and tournament purses. This is not a knock on them; they have done well for themselves and many others. Expecting them to save the sport from whatever it needs to be saved from, however, never has been realistic.

No, the Nov. 23 match isn't a bad pay-per-view idea because of high-minded, long-view notions of what is good for golf. It's just bad sports marketing that won't help the game, the players or its promoters in a sustainable way. Here’s why:

False drama. $9 million is a lot of money to us. It’s a rounding error to these guys. Woods is said to be worth $760 million; Mickelson, $365 million. A charitable commitment won’t help if they insist on the winner-take-all model. No one wants to see one charity go home empty because someone couldn’t bury a 10-footer.

World o’ choices. In 1971, Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden was the biggest event since The Creation, if you believed the billing. And people did, in droves. That and Ali’s singular personality could pack movie theaters at nearly any price for closed-circuit views of the fight. Sports, especially big-time sports, were still a diversion back then, not an everyday thing.

Today? Sure, Woods is still one of the most famous athletes in the world – but he leads a much larger pack than Ali did back in the day. Who else was as big then? Joe Namath? Plus, whatever drama you want to varnish it with, golf ain’t boxing. The latent thrill of violence among the tuxedoed and powerful is something even the biggest-time golf never can gin up. (Hence the modern appeal of MMA and WWE pay-per-views, minus the formalwear.)

Oh, and by the bye: free sports choices abound on that very day. The National Hockey League has 15 games on Nov. 23, including a highly promoted regional rivalry (Rangers-Flyers) on NBC (the free one, not NBC Sports Network). The National Basketball Association has 14 games that Friday. Six college football games involving preseason top-25 teams kick off across the afternoon and evening. Such is a world wallpapered by sports.

It’s been done, and it flopped. Matt Bonesteel recalled in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post that in 1988, Jack Nicklaus arranged a $13 pay-per-view match in the desert between himself and Lee Trevino on one team and Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam on the other. Players wearing mics, the whole bit. Big names, right? Slam dunk, right?

No. Only about 50,000 homes bought in, and the event needed to sell 65,000 views to break even. These guys essentially were available on free TV nearly every weekend. Nicklaus, nor anyone else, ever again pulled such a pallet of ice into an Eskimo marketplace.

Something like it has been done, but its time is past. Starting in 1983, The Skins Game became a welcome Thanksgiving golf tradition that mixed match play and conviviality in a way that viewers could understand. They played for skins (that is, hole victories) themselves all the time, and knew the personal drama of carryovers from tied holes. Watching Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson, the initial foursome in 1983, do the same was as good as it got. And for 26 years, with various stars sitting in, it worked. But the ratings shrank to nearly nothing in the sports-crowded Internet years, and the beloved event ceased after the 2008 installment.

Smell test. OK, so golf might not be as close to being on a respirator as some would have us believe. But there is some truth to the notion that it’s exclusive, hard to approach, expensive, time-consuming and slow. At least some casual fans see it that way, which makes it hard to un-casual them. Sticking them for X dollars to see golf’s stars as the holiday season commences – indeed on the day it starts, retail’s Black Friday – feels a bit snark-infested.

What it adds up to is a big fizzle and people rubbed the wrong way. And whether you’re trying to make good sports TV or grow the game, those aren’t things golf can afford right now.

Adam Barr has surveyed golf for 25 years as a print and broadcast journalist (Golfweek, Golf Channel), an equipment company executive, and with the USGA as director of communications and its museum. He lives in Basking Ridge, N.J. Email: adambarr1@gmail.com; Twitter: @ABNarratesBooks