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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Woods Has Good Idea: Shorten Golf Season

March 06, 2005|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Tiger Woods' suggestion that a shorter PGA Tour season would make for a better one is too good to ignore.

Golf's major domo looked at the field the day before the Ford Championship at Doral teed off and counted 11 of the world's top dozen players entered. Last year, the season stretched 44 weeks and the top four -- Vijay Singh, Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson -- played together exactly eight times, and half of those were majors. That got Woods thinking.

"It would be more exciting for the fans, and I'm sure the sponsors and TV and everybody if we did play more often together," he said. "The only way you could do that is if we shortened the season."

So here's a better suggestion: Since fewer games would make for a better product in every sport, why stop at golf?

It's hardly the only sport that should start thinking about cinching its belt close to where supply meets demand. If not for their sake, then for ours. With few exceptions, every sport puts out way too much junk for consumption just because they can. That's the beauty of being a cartel.

If all those leagues, conferences and sanctioning bodies had to operate in a real competitive marketplace the way, say, McDonald's does, they'd have to shutter some franchises and pull a few items off the menu every now and then.

Think you couldn't live with less sports?

Well, the NHL is in hibernation and nobody's noticed. Turn on the TV most nights and the long-standing knock about the NBA regular season being too long -- "82 games to eliminate Cleveland from the playoffs" -- still rings true if you substitute "Atlanta" or "New Orleans" for "Cleveland."

Cut those two off at 50 games and playoffs -- remember when they were called "winter" sports? -- and both are better by half.

Baseball can start by trimming back to 154 regular-season games, less to bring its records back in line than to ease the transition to, let's say, 100 games and playoffs. If you don't think commissioner Bud Selig was serious when he uttered the C-word (contraction) a few years back, then you should know what he knows: The only people possibly excited about a Kansas City-Tampa Bay tilt in late September are the stadium vendors and the players' parents.

But here's another thing Selig and his pals in the sports' ownership club know: despite putting on of dozens of clunkers like that every season, the money keeps rolling in.

Much more of it rolls into the Yankee's coffers than say, the Royals' or the Devil Rays', which means those pinstripes would be even more profitable -- not to mention watchable and honorable -- if they beat up fewer patsies and faced the Red Sox, Twins and Angels more.

Fact is, you could begin with "Tiger Woods" or "Duke University" or "Shaq" for "Yankees" in the sentence above and it would pretty much hold true. There will always be underdogs, so there will always be upsets, but they will mean more precisely because there will be less.

Don't think so? Television ratings have been slipping over the past decade or so for just about every sport except for NASCAR, which is growing, and the NFL, which is holding firm. Part of it is because of the splintering audience, but part of it has to do with their approaches.

NASCAR had a hard time getting on the tube until 2001; it's catching up to demand. Pro football, on the other hand, limits its supply to each team playing once a week. Two-thirds of the time a game is televised in a local market, it outdraws every other show on TV that week, including prime-time blockbusters like "CSI," "Survivor" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."

And there would be more love for baseball and basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, college football and basketball, etc., if there was a little less of each. But we'll grant you this much: The argument against cutbacks almost anywhere is seamless.

Players, owners, league executives, conferences, sanctioning bodies, TV networks and even sportswriters might blush sometimes repeating it, but they'll point out that as long as somebody is paying for the shlock as well as the premium stuff, might as well put it on the tube and in arenas, too.

Maybe. Right now, attendance is still strong in most sports and sponsorship dollars are up, up, up across the board. Even hockey, which was flailing long before it canceled the season, climbed from $210 million to $230 million the year before. Last year, companies in North America plunked down $11.1 billion, and the IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks industry trends, predicts spending will climb by 8.8 percent.

Meanwhile, network TV executives have been promising for 20 years to stop the spiraling rights fees they shell out for sporting events -- only to get amnesia on the very day they sit down across a bargaining table to negotiate. And their rationale is that like everything else on TV, the games that aren't pulling their own financial weight disappear soon enough (remember the XFL)?

They're right, of course. Despite predictions to the contrary, the pie of sports has continued expanding and since every big-time sport enjoys a monopoly, it's possible they could go on growing forever. The problem with building an empire in the entertainment business, like any other business, is that sooner or later you run into somebody else's empire. That's where the real competition begins.

Remember that line from Bruce Springsteen, "There was 57 channels and nothin' on"? Today, the average household gets 100 -- and if we're talking about sporting events really worth watching, by and large, there's still precious little on.

It's high time to start cutting. Be like Tiger Woods. Send along your suggestions.

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