Tiger Woods is not the first athlete to transcend sports. What makes his little tiff with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem noteworthy is that Woods is the first athlete who has the opportunity to compete and draw attention outside the normal parameters of his sport.
In the latest issue of Golf World magazine, Woods complained about his relationship with Finchem and, more seriously, said he was unhappy with the way the tour and its partners use Woods for marketing without his consent.
According to the article, a rift opened up when the PGA wouldn't allow Woods' father to follow him in a cart during the exhibition duel with David Duval at Sherwood Country Club last year. But the promotional usage is the main issue, and in the interview Woods said the conflict was "Serious enough that if we don't make everyone aware of it now, it could escalate into a bigger situation."
Don't expect much to come of his remarks that Finchem talks to him only when he wants him to play in a tournament. What would they have to talk about if they held a longer discussion?
But Woods sounds intent on getting what's his.
"I believe in what I believe in," Woods said. "I understand the whole picture."
It's always good to see athletes think like businessmen, because all too often they get the short end of the corporate dynamics of professional sports.
Woods is entitled to try for as much as he can get.
Everyone from the sponsors to the greenskeepers makes money off him. The dollars have poured into the sport since he turned pro in 1996.
Just look at one case of the trickle-down effect (or, if you prefer, the "Mickel-down" effect). Phil Mickelson won four tournaments in the pre-Tiger year of 1996 and collected $1,697,799. Winning four PGA events this year helped him earn more than $4.7 million. Phil, Amy and little baby Amanda Mickelson can all thank Woods.
Mickelson's bank account is only one sign of how Woods' popularity has brought millions of dollars to the game.
The tour, the networks and affiliated sponsors (some of them competitors with Woods' sponsors) use Woods in promos every chance they get.
Should Tiger be getting the, uh, lion's share of all this money, including the next TV contract that should top $500 million?
"In a perfect world, I would be," he said. "Arnold [Palmer] would be. All the great ones would be. Arnold is the one who got it all started."
And Woods is simply the latest superstar athlete who won't ever recoup his actual worth.
Yes, even though he has a chance to win more than $10 million on the tour this year, plus endorsement deals that will bring him $100 million from Nike alone, Woods is underpaid--just as Michael Jordan was when he made more than $60 million from the Chicago Bulls in the last two years of his NBA career.
Jordan fought similar battles over his valuable name and image, and he was able to maintain control of the use of his likeness to a large degree. Jordan's face wasn't on those caricature shirts that were so popular in the late 1980s and early '90s. He didn't appear in NBA-licensed video games that featured other players from the league.
Like Woods, Jordan became bigger than the sport he played. The difference was, Jordan was more reliant on the NBA than Woods is on the PGA Tour.
Watching Jordan without high-caliber teammates such as Scottie Pippen wouldn't be the same, nor would it be as exciting if he weren't playing against the Lakers, Pistons and Jazz.
But people will tune in simply to watch Tiger vs. the course. That was evident by the strong TV ratings for the final rounds of this year's U.S. and British Opens, which were practically victory laps for Woods.
And more than 10 million people watched him go one-on-one against Sergio Garcia in an exhibition in August, making it the 15th-highest rated TV program of the week.
Woods knows that his place in history will be judged by how many majors he wins.
He still has seven more years remaining on the exemption he secured for winning the 1997 Masters and will have five-year exemptions for winning the U.S. Open and British Open and the PGA Championship this year. So he could fill his calendar with exhibitions around the world for the next couple of years and still show up when it counts.
Ryder Cup? Woods was so successful this year that he has more than twice as many qualifying points as second-place Mickelson, and could probably finish among the top 10 even if he were shut out next year. And if he didn't happen to qualify in 2001 or beyond, don't you think the TV honchos would be calling every day with certain "suggestions" about who should be chosen with the captains' picks?
There are too many dollars at stake.
Is it all about money? On the PGA Tour, the answer is:
c) you betcha.
d) all of the above.
The value of the purses on the PGA Tour has swelled to $170 million, from $96 million in 1998. Television ratings have soared (the final round of the PGA produced the highest TV ratings for that event since 1971 and was watched by an estimated 38.5 million viewers). On the other hand, what made Tiger Tiger was his participation in the PGA Tour, with all of its established marketing tools, and the chance to prove himself by beating the best players in the world.
He has leverage, which is why the PGA will listen to him. And he has brains, which is why he'll realize the tour is the best place for him to be, the two sides will work something out, and they'll all walk away with even more money.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.