((I welcome sincere pushback and constructive criticism))
The True Tail of the Tiger Effect
In August of 2016, the golf world was in the sorrowful depths of withstanding a significant time apart from it’s most golden of children in the modern game: Tiger Woods. Ryan Harrington published “What Golf Looked Like Before Tiger Woods Turned Pro And Changed The Game Forever” for Golf Digest and wooed her readers with several impressive statistics. Sean Foley, Woods’ former coach, has been quoted as saying “I think when he came on the tour the purse was about $70 million and this year it’s $297 million. That escalation over 20 years is attributable to one person’s influence." But where Harrington and Foley err - and where many err in their laud of and admiration for Woods – is in looking at these statistics in a vacuum seemingly in order to bolster the messianic Woods narrative.
One of the most relevant (but possibly not as praiseworthy for Woods) interdisciplinary points is to compare the monetary statistics of the PGA Tour with those of other professional sports. This gives us an idea of how the sports entertainment business has changed – and in reality thrived as if one cohesive unit – in America. For this exercise in factual rhetoric, let’s choose an arbitrary date that just happened to be brought to attention by a social media post of Curtis Strange’s: 1988.
30 years in the past marks a reasonable starting point for two reasons: the four major American leagues in question (the NBA, MLB, NFL, and PGA Tour) were all being widely televised and were all comfortably lucrative. To preface, our comparisons of these years and leagues will be predicated on the basis of an inflationary rate of 114% percent, from 1988 to 2018. In some instances, modern average salaries of the professional sports leagues may be taken from years just adjacent to 2018, which in no way inflates the results (in some cases, it could actually deflate them). So, let’s dive right into the landscape …
In no later than 2016, the average salaries for these American leagues were as follows:
National Basketball Association: $6.2 million
Major League Baseball: $4.4 million
National Football League: $2.1 million
These organizations’ pay rate looked staggeringly different in 1988 (adjusted for inflation in secondary column) …
NBA: $530,000 $1.13 million
MLB: $240,000 $512,000
NFL: $440,000 $940,000
When each of these historical figures is compared to its contemporary, we get overall “wage” increases of:
Now let’s turn the lens to the PGA Tour. In 1988, the average purse for a Tour event was roughly $750,000. Adjusted for inflation, that is $1.6 million per tournament. In 2018, we see what appears to be a staggering increase, with PGA events awarding $7.4 million per tour stop. Until …
7,400,000 / 1,600,000 = 4.625
The PGA Tour’s rate of “wage increase” is commensurate with and mirrors that of professional sport in America in general over the last 30 years. Is this to say that Woods had nothing to do with it? Absolutely not. But none of the other professional leagues detailed above have been willing to lay late 20th/21st century success at the feet of one man. So who’s responsible in the other major American sports? Or, because that line of logic fails to check out, could it be that the rise in PGA Tour prize moneys has been due to, in large part, a natural increase in the valuation of the landscape of American athletic entertainment?
But it is not at all difficult to anticipate the sentiments of those who hold Woods near and dear to their golfing identity. “How can you deny that Woods ushered in a new era of the PGA Tour?!” … “Look at the money these guys are making now! That was never the case before Tiger.” The irony is that, not only were there periods of very similar rates of growth in Tour moneys, but also the “Tiger Era” does not even represent the largest era of growth.
Let’s draw back thirty years B.T. (before Tiger) and examine the growth rate there. In Harrington’s article, it is stated that the average first-place check in 1996 was roughly $263,000. The average first place check over 40 Tour events conducted in 1966 was roughly $11,480. Again, adjusting for inflation from ’66 to ’96 at prescribed rate of 384%, our ’66 first-place figure comes to $55,600, representing a growth of 4.74x . If you recall, only a few paragraphs ago was it shown that the supposed amazing era of growth on the PGA Tour ushered in by only Tiger Woods grew at the rate of 4.63x.
Head back even further, and the results are ever more interesting, but unfortunately the data with which to play is more scant. To illustrate the rate of increase from 1936 to 1966, we can rely on two record sources; one being the reported first-place prizes for our modern Majors (omitting the British Open because of its paltry amount), and two being the wins of Sam Snead, which totaled 13 from 1937 through 1938.
The most lucrative championships in the United States in 1936 (the US Open, the Masters, and the PGA Championship) averaged champion pay-outs of $1,166. In 1966, these same events averaged $23,800. After adjusting for inflation (1,166 x 2.33), this represents an increase of 8.76x . To put this in perspective, these same events saw average growth rates of 3.7x from ’66 to ’96, and 5.59x from ’88 to 2018.
But indeed, this is a small subset of tournaments played during both years. However, we can also look at the evidence put forth by Snead’s victory records. Slammin’ Sammy, over the course of 13 events from 1938 to 1939 (none of which were “majors”), averaged a winning payday of $1,200 – and this figure includes a massive $5,000 check at the “West Chester 108-Hole Open”. We’ve already determined that the average first-place finish in 1966 earned you $11,480. With Snead’s earnings adjusted for inflation (1,200 x 2.33) and compared to the average prize in ’66, we see a growth rate of 4.1x . If you remove the outlier of the $5k payday (unheard of at the time and most likely a large promotional stunt carried out by very wealthy men), our growth rate then comes to roughly 5.6x .
So, in review …
**Growth Rate Major Growth Rate**
1988 – 2018 ----------------------- 4.63 -----------------------------------5.59
1966 – 1996------------------------4.74-------------------------------------3.7
1936 – 1966-------------------4.1 – 5.6---------------------------------- 8.76
It is undeniable that the modern PGA Tour professional has the opportunity to earn more money than ever before. What is clear, however, given the statistical evidence that is laid out above, is that the modern gorging of tournament purses cannot, as Foley asserts, be “attributed to one person’s influence”. After all, the numbers were in motion long before we heard “Hello, world.”