Tiger Woods' "indefinite" absence from professional golf could deliver a significant financial hit for the PGA Tour events that count on his drawing power to fill fan galleries, boost television ratings and create exposure for sponsors.
Woods hasn't indicated when he might return return to the sport he has dominated for more than a decade. But his absence could run into the Tour's annual Florida Swing, a five-tournament series that begins in early March and includes the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando.
Experts agree his haitus to focus on "being a better father, husband and person" in the aftermath of self-described "infidelity" and tabloid tales of mistresses will be felt from coast to coast in the events he usually plays.
"The PGA Tour is going to have a cold, and some of the tournaments will have fewer outward appearances of that cold, whereas some events will be coughing every day, looking for some sort of help," said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "The problem is the PGA Tour wasn't anticipating this to happen."
One only has to look to 2008 to see the impact of an extended absence by Woods.
When Woods underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee after the 2008 U.S. Open and missed the next eight months, television ratings plummeted and fan interest dipped.
The Nielsen Co. found that the third- and fourth-round broadcasts of events Woods competed in after the 2007 U.S. Open averaged about 4.6 million viewers. A year later, with Woods sidelined by the knee injury, those same tournaments' third and fourth rounds averaged just 2.4 million viewers, a drop of about 47 percent.
The starkest example of Woods' effect on TV ratings came at the 2007 and 2008 PGA Championships. According to Nielsen, more than 9 million people watched Woods' final-round victory in 2007; the next year, viewership dropped 57.6 percent for Padraig Harrington's victory over a field that didn't include Tiger.
As John Feinstein, a sports commentator and author who writes frequently about golf, told the Los Angeles Times: "Will the PGA Tour fold up and go away? No. But they have some serious issues. There is a little bit of panic."
Losing Tiger for any amount of time, obviously, isn't a good thing for the PGA Tour. However, he only plays a little more than one-third of the tour schedule, and history has also shown that those tournaments he usually skips maintain consistent ratings. They never had Tiger, so they aren't really losing anything.
"We know that when Tiger doesn't play in an event [he normally plays in], the ratings for that event will fall somewhere between 40 and 50 percent on the Golf Channel," said Page Thompson, the president of the Golf Channel, an Orlando-based cable network.
Thompson said Woods typically plays in just about 15 of the 150 golf tournaments his network broadcasts overall each year.
"For the Golf Channel, I think the effects are a lot less than you might read in some of the reports … He definitely has an effect on the events that he plays, but if he doesn't play in an event ever, then that rating will be pretty much unchanged," Thompson said.
Woods has played in the Arnold Palmer Invitational every year since 1997. He's won the event six times, including last year and this past March.
Fans line up three-, four- and five-deep in places along the first fairway just to catch a glimpse of him. Many spectators walk the entire 7,100-yard course even if the temperatures hover around 90 degrees.
People roared at the top of their lungs when he made long birdie putts the last two tournaments on the 72nd, and final, hole of regulation.
"Obviously, history says he impacts events," said Scott Wellington, the Arnold Palmer Invitational's tournament director. "There's no question about it. Everybody knows that. So, to what degree, I don't know. ….
"Certainly, the way he's won the last two tournaments here has created a lot of drama and a lot of excitement. But going forward, though, all we want for him is the best for him and his family … and get back to golf when the time is right for him. And when that time is right, we hope it includes him coming to Bay Hill."
Woods' hiatus comes at a bad time. The PGA Tour, like all professional sports leagues, is feeling the effects of the recession. Sponsorship at many events has diminished, and even participation in pro-ams in the days leading up to the first round has decreased.
But Thompson said that the Golf Channel can withstand Woods' absence well. It already had lined up original programming that includes shows featuring swing coach Hank Haney, former major winner John Daly and Donald Trump. Next year also marks the beginning of the network's exclusive cable agreement to televise LPGA Tour events.
He also said the game of golf itself is healthy, despite the events stemming out of Woods' Nov. 27 car accident that now have sponsors distancing themselves from the sport's biggest star.
" Accenture is walking away from their relationship with Tiger Woods," Thompson said. "But I haven't seen it reported in many places that Accenture has a deal to sponsor the Accenture Match Play tournament through 2014. So, Accenture isn't walking away from golf. Accenture is walking away from Tiger Woods."
Still, Swangard said that tournaments that expected Woods to play will suffer in both sponsorship and in ticket sales. And while he noted that the PGA Tour already has television agreements in place, it now might be more difficult for the events where Woods usually plays to sell excess television ads.
"Those advertisers will look at those prices that they're probably offering and say, 'What's the Tiger discount?'" Swangard said.
They have strong reason for that, according to former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson.
"Golf ratings won't be as good," Pilson said. "Period."
Woods' impact on the game, though, does have its positives. His return is certain to be greeted with huge ratings. And golf insiders are hopeful the fans he has created over the years will stick around.
"In his absence, this property [the PGA Tour] is not going to roll up its carpet and shutter its doors," Swangard said. "It is a more popular property in 2009 versus the mid-1990s because of what Tiger has done for the game."
Jeremy Fowler of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Information from the Los Angeles Times also was used. Josh Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.