British Open final-round ratings slide to lowest level in ESPN's tenure

Rory McIlroy 2014 British Open Television Ratings
Angus Murray/SI
The ease of Rory McIlroy's victory at Royal Liverpool might have contributed to the ratings slide.

Rory McIlroy might still be on a high from handily claiming the Claret Jug last weekend, but ESPN’s ratings sure aren’t. The 2014 Open Championship served ESPN its worst Open ratings since the network took over the tournament's rights in 2009: down 26 percent from 2013’s final round, or about 3.2 million viewers.

Compare that to last year, when an average of 4.3 million viewers watched Phil Mickelson pull off a massive comeback at Muirfield, sinking four birdies in the last six holes to finish three strokes ahead of Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Tiger Woods was also in the hunt that Sunday, but finished the tournament in sixth place.

The ratings for the final round of that Open Championship, according to an ESPN release, were the third-highest among all golf telecasts on cable, behind the 2008 U.S. Open (which Tiger Woods won in a playoff against Rocco Mediate) and the 2010 Masters (when Tiger returned to golf).

Is there a pattern here?

Paulsen of Sports Media Watch, who goes by only one name, said most sports have seen ratings decline over the years, but some sports, including golf, have struggled more than most during the past five years. He said that only the NFL has been able to “buck the trend.”

Maybe even Tiger can’t save ESPN’s ratings. He chose the 2014 British Open as his first tournament since undergoing back surgery in March, and even with the fanfare of his return (perhaps coupled with his dismal showing) wasn’t enough to tip the ratings in ESPN’s favor.

Runner-ups Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler made plays for the lead Sunday. Neither Garcia’s door-knocking play nor Fowler’s late charge were enough to boost television viewers’ interest.

In fact, as Paulsen states, McIlroy’s viewership itself has been declining over the years; his 2011 U.S. Open win was down 26% from 2010, and his 2012 PGA Championship win was down 9% from 2011. It’s worth noting that the 2012 PGA was aired the same time as the London Summer Olympic Games.

But for the brief suspense on Sunday, McIlroy still ran away with the tournament early. “I think the ease of his win had a definite role to play in the decline,” Paulsen said in an email interview. “But if Tiger or Phil had won, the numbers would have been better regardless of the margin of victory.”

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