By: Jamie Samuelsen
LeBron James is chasing his second NBA title on the heels of winning his fourth MVP award.
Tiger Woods is trying to win his first Major championship in five years on the heels of reclaiming the number one spot in the World Golf Rankings.
LeBron has to do battle with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs. Tiger has to tame the Merion Golf Club and tangle with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Phil Mickleson.
But in the global sense, the two biggest stars in sports are going head-to-head.
As it does every year, the U.S. Open is coinciding with the NBA Finals. Back in the late 90s when both events were carried by NBC, you had the chance to watch Tiger Woods in the afternoon and Michael Jordan in prime time. There was little doubt then that Michael reigned supreme. His career was wrapping up while Tiger’s was just getting started.
Then Tiger took over and owned the sports landscape for the better part of a decade. Sure, there were challengers to the throne. Guys like Lance Armstrong, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant took their shots. But Tiger was #1. He had all the endorsements. He won all the tournaments. And he dominated the sports landscape like no other.
But then Tiger went for a late night drive on Thanksgiving night 2009. And all of a sudden the endorsements went away. The championships tapered off. And the critics sharpened their knives. Tiger Woods wasn’t even playing golf and pictures of him became as rare as those blurry shots of Bigfoot. Slowly Tiger re-emerged – humbled and hobbled (knee surgery taking care of the latter part). But eventually he started winning again. The galleries swelled. The TV ratings bulged. And Tiger was back on top of the golf world again. The only thing he hasn’t done was to win another Major which remains his primary motivation.
LeBron’s run-in with a fire hydrant was figurative, not literal. He chose to go to Connecticut to announce his ‘decision’ to take his ‘talents to South Beach’. In terms of PR stunts, this ranked somewhere below Tiger’s revelation that he’d been unfaithful to his ex-wife. LeBron was loathed, booed and reviled in every NBA city other than Miami.
But just like Woods, James has enjoyed a rise from the ashes. He won his elusive first ring last summer. Then he went to London and led the USA to another Gold Medal (the second of his career). And he followed it up with a superlative season this year that included Miami’s 27-game winning streak. By the end of that streak, some fans who normally rooted against LeBron actually found themselves rooting for him again.
Neither of these athletes will ever be as beloved as they were. But both are enjoying a certain amount of love that didn’t seem possible even three years ago.
So who’s the bigger star – LeBron or Tiger?
A week ago, I would have said LeBron. He’s peaking as a player and he seems to have another three or four titles waiting out there for him. For as good as Woods is, he’s not the dominant force that he was. And for a time, it seemed like other golfers had passed him up and left him behind.
But then a funny thing happened. LeBron and the Heat took care of the Spurs 103-84 in Game 2 of the Finals. And on Monday, the report came out that it was the lowest rated Finals Game since 2009. LeBron may be excelling, but people aren’t watching, at least not as much as they did last year. LeBron is the most popular basketball player on the planet. But if he doesn’t translate to TV ratings, what does it really matter. And while we’re at it – when was the last time you saw LeBron in a TV commercial?
As for Woods, he remains golf’s ultimate drawing card. When Tiger won the TPC last month, the tournament enjoyed the best ratings since 2001. When he won at Doral earlier in the spring, they had the highest ratings since 2006. Tiger plays; people watch. There’s not a simpler measurement than that.
There’s more to it than TV ratings. But when you combine those with the commercials and with the EA Sports video games and with the number of times you see Tiger online or on magazine covers, it leaves little doubt.
Tiger is still the biggest draw in sports. You didn’t think some silly SUV accident was really going to slow him down, did you?