SBJ/August 13 - 19, 2001/Opinion

One 'Battle' too many, 2 are just right

If you were like me and watched any or all of the Battle at Bighorn on ABC Sports, you probably are wondering why you did. Sure, the alternate-ball matchup pitting Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods against Karrie Webb and David Duval produced some drama. The lead switched several times and the match went to 19 holes.

And the show displayed some of the special skills of these top golfers, the most notable being Sorenstam's left-handed play of a hanging lie in shrub.

But the competition seemed to be secondary in this inconsequential exhibition. It didn't have the feel of a competition between the four best men and women golfers in the world.

Ratings for the show and comments of viewers and pundits back up that assessment. ABC's 5.9 rating and 10 share were down more than 30 percent from the Woods-Sergio Garcia matchup a year ago and down 20 percent from the 1999 event between Woods and Duval.

One executive in the golf tournament industry told me: "The golf was awful. They really hacked it. Chunked shots. Off-line shots. Putting off the green. It was terrible." An amateur female golfer who works in sports production remarked: "I honestly couldn't watch the whole thing because I was so amazingly bored. If I had no interest, being a female golfer as well as someone in sports production, then I would like to know who actually watched."

Therein lies the rub. Although ABC Sports was a loser, the biggest loser was women's golf, despite the comments of LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw, who called the event "one of the biggest days in LPGA history, if not the biggest day, based on the number of eyeballs that are going to be on our product." He's right about the number of viewers, but he's dead wrong about the impact on them.

I've watched and enjoyed women's golf for years, since the days of Mickey Wright. I've probably watched more women's golf than almost any other man in my demographic. But there was not one minute of the Battle at Bighorn that made me more inclined to watch women's golf in the future. Or men's golf, for that matter.

So the event was a missed opportunity for ABC Sports, but especially for women's golf, which had the chance to showcase in prime time the two dominant women's golfers. Their shot-making ability, their ability to recover, and most important, their individual competitiveness could have been presented in a shot-for-shot match that had meaning. Instead, the competitiveness was lost in the alternate-shot format.

To improve the event and its ratings, some pundits suggest playing a best-ball format, with the women getting a 40-yard or so advantage off the tee. disagree. The women shouldn't be playing against the men and trying to prove that they are as good as or better. They should merely showcase the best of the women's game: its high quality and competitiveness. A study we conducted at the Kelley MBA Sports and Entertainment Academy two years ago showed that there is a disconnect between reality and most fans' perception of the quality of women's golf. The primary obstacle to fans watching women's golf is fans' ignorance of the quality and competitiveness of women's golf.

Here's what should have been done at Bighorn and what should be done in the future. There should be two matches, billed as the Battles of Bighorn, with emphasis on the plural: The women's No. 1 player against No. 2 (Sorenstam vs. Webb) and the men's No. 1 against No. 2 (Woods vs. Duval). They should play as a foursome, so all four golfers are on the same hole at all times. That way every viewer's attention is focused on both the men and the women.

Use the best men's golfer to entice golf fans to watch the Battles of Bighorn. Showcase the best women's golfers at the same time, playing their game, not some trumped up, silly-season exhibition. If we do this, the fans will come.

Thomas Bowers is co-director of the Kelley MBA Sports and Entertainment Academy at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

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