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Tiger Woods' break to impact ratings

Networks could suffer a major blow in upcoming tournaments

With Tiger Woods announcing he's putting his golf career on hold, networks face a potentially crippling blow to the sport's ratings.

Last weekend, Woods skipped the Chevron World Challenge, a tournament he founded. NBC's telecast drew a modest 1.2 million viewers, down 54% compared with last year, when Woods competed in the event.

"Without Woods, televised tournaments are like a major motion picture without a star's name above the title -- rarely do people go to see the flick," said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at Katz TV Group. "Now only die-hard golf fans will watch the tournaments."

Golf's best player posted a statement Friday on his Web site admitting to "infidelity," apologizing to his fans and saying he was taking a break from the sport.

"It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try," Woods wrote.

NBC's viewership drop last weekend is typical for a tournament when Woods is a no-show. When he was sidelined by knee surgery in 2008, forcing him to miss major competitions for the first time in his career, tournament viewership ratings crashed. Wood's absence also dragged down ticket sales, media coverage and sponsor interest.

Beginning next month, there is tournament coverage nearly every weekend, including the Buick Invitational in early February. Woods typically participates in about a dozen televised events a year.

"The real question is, how long is this sabbatical?" one network executive asked. "A month? Six months? A year?"

The scandal is affecting advertisers, too. Global consulting firm Accenture said Sunday that it is ending its sponsorship of Woods, saying the golfer is "no longer the right representative" after the "circumstances of the last two weeks." On Saturday, Gillette, which uses the slogan "The best a man can get," said it won't air advertisements featuring Woods or include him in public appearances for an unspecified amount of time.

If and when Woods does return to the game, it's certain to spike viewership -- at least initially. Over the long term, analysts say the scandal could have a lasting negative impact on the golf's popularity.

"While there will be keen interest in Tiger's first tournament back, overall ratings will likely decline as the casual golf viewer who was enticed by Tiger's personal and professional persona will now most likely view him differently," said John Rash, senior vp at Campbell Mithun. "Indeed, his aura, which defined an era, is gone, and along with that, some viewers."