Tiger's timing couldn't be better for ESPN, CBS

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the Tour Championship golf tournament at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. (September 25, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

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Tiger Woods' return to golf will reverberate far beyond the bounds of golf courses, reaching deeply into two other worlds he has conquered during the past decade-and-a-half: television and business.

ESPN, which gets first dibs thanks to its deal to televise the first two rounds of the Masters, weighed in Tuesday with its customary lack of reserve:

"Tiger's return to competitive golf at this year's Masters tournament will surely be one of the biggest stories the sporting world has seen,'' said John Wildhack, executive vice president for programming and acquisitions.

"We will cover the Masters tournament and Tiger's return across a variety of ESPN platforms, both domestically and internationally.''

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Even normally staid CBS is not above Tigermania.

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Last week, CBS Sports president Sean McManus said this to SI.com:

"I think the first tournament Tiger Woods plays again, wherever it is, will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years.

"It is hard to overestimate how much interest there will be. Tiger Woods is the most famous, most recognized, most accomplished athlete in the world, and his celebrity and prominence is larger than it was.''

The tricky thing about golf tournaments is that they are contested over four days, and over many hours each day.

So Woods' live presence online and on TV will depend on his tee times. ESPN is scheduled to be on only from 4 to 7:30 p.m. the first two days, but the Masters offers some live coverage earlier on its Web site.

His visibility on CBS during the weekend will depend on whether he makes the cut and if so whether he is in contention.

"Remember, it's a four-day event,'' Jim Nantz, who will call his 25th Masters for CBS, told Newsday last week.

"Let's say Thursday he didn't play well. By the time you get to Saturday, is there still the sizzle there? But if he's in contention, it would be a monster rating.''

The two highest golf ratings since 1977, according to Nielsen, were for Woods' Masters victories in 1997 (14.1 percent of homes) and 2001 (13.0).

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Several of Woods' sponsors issued statements Tuesday, including Nike, which said, "We look forward to Tiger's return to the Masters and seeing him back on the course.''

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As much as Woods presumably was eager to return, his sponsors' role cannot be discounted.

"I think this is motivated completely by his sponsors,'' said Robert Boland, a sports attorney and professor of sports management at NYU.

Boland believes if Woods had not committed to playing soon, companies could have used his inaction to void their contracts with him.

"If I were the CEO of a company paying $10 million or $6 million,'' Boland said, "I'd want him to be golfing.''

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