It is no secret that today’s golfers on the PGA Tour are earning far more money than golfers did 20 years ago and many point to the popularity of Tiger Woods as the No. 1 reason. However, while Woods almost certainly has impacted winnings, his overall impact is probably being overstated by those who feel the Jordan Spieths of the golf world — with his enormous career winnings already — owe everything to Woods.
The evidence to support Woods’s impact is pretty simple and compelling. Woods won his first major championship in 1997, when he won the Masters in a record-breaking performance and took the sports world by storm. After that, prize money on the PGA Tour immediately skyrocketed, as represented by the average winnings for the top 200 golfers.
But like many things, the story is not nearly that simple.
Let’s compare the average winnings on the PGA Tour to the average salaries during the same time period in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball. All four show a sudden increase in 1997, give-or-take a year.
In other words, the on-field/court/course earnings for all pro athletes in major sports leagues started to accelerate in the late 90s, not just on the PGA Tour.
And why did they all start to accelerate at about the same time? Simple, national television revenue. More money was being pumped into all sports and a lot of the money was going to the athletes.
This doesn’t mean Woods is not a factor at all. If we look at the four years leading up to 1997 and the first four years after Woods’ first major, winnings/salaries increase greatly in all four sports but they increased at a faster rate in golf. Both the PGA Tour (2.7X) and MLB (2.5X) had the rate of increase nearly triple over the next four years, as represented by average increase average salaries. Meanwhile, the salary-capped sports, NFL (1.7X) and NBA (1.5X) showed slightly slower rates of increase.
But again, how much of the difference between the PGA Tour and the others can we attribute to Woods? It is a lot easier to add 30% to average winnings of $US378,000 on the Tour in 1997 than it is to add 30% to the average NBA salary of $US2.2 million in the same year.
Should Spieth thank Woods for his bank account? Certainly, just like every athlete in every major pro sports should thank the stars of yesterday.
But Spieth can probably thank sports television in general more. Chances are, PGA Tour winnings were going to skyrocket whether Tiger Woods was winning tournaments or not.
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