* Tiger Woods return draws celebrity watchers, sports fans
* Most comments on social networking sites are positive
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, April 9 The ESPN television
network enjoyed a 50 percent spike in ratings for its
opening-day broadcast of the Masters golf tournament as Tiger
Woods made his comeback from a sex scandal, early audience
figures showed on Friday.
The Masters, one of golf's most prestigious tournaments,
began on Thursday and runs through Sunday. Woods has won the
Masters four times. CBS (CBS.N) will broadcast the tournament
on Saturday and Sunday. ESPN aired it Thursday and Friday.
The cable TV sports network, which is owned by the Walt
Disney Co (DIS.N), reached 3.6 percent of households in major
U.S. cities where the audience was measured on Thursday, said
ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle.
That is a 50 percent increase from a year ago when ESPN
reached 2.4 percent of the same households, and a total of 3.4
million viewers, with its first day broadcast of the Masters.
Full audience viewership figures are expected later on Friday.
"There obviously was a big buildup to his return to the
tour and it brought in a much larger audience beyond the core
golf fan," Nagle said.
Woods playing at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, marks his
return to the game after announcing in December that he would
take a break from the sport following media revelations of his
extra-marital affairs with women.
If comments posted on social networking websites are any
indication, Woods may soon be out of the woods when it comes to
his image problems.
Research firm Viralheat said 70 percent of comments about
Woods on social networking websites Thursday were positive.
Similar trends were seen earlier this week, the firm said.
"He's not pure as the driven snow anymore but he's still a
great golfer," said Cooper Lawrence, author of "The Cult of
Celebrity." "He didn't cheat on us. He cheated on his wife --
frankly, it's none of our business that way."
When ESPN broke away from regular programming to show Woods
teeing off at the Masters, its viewership for that hour doubled
to 0.8 percent of households in major U.S. cities, Nagle said.
Around that time, more than 17,500 comments mentioning
Woods were posted on the social network website Twitter.com,
the tracking firm Trendrr said. Nearly 11,000 Twitter comments
were made when Woods gave a news conference Monday.
Celebrity websites such as TMZ.com devoted more attention
to the spectacle surrounding Woods than his play.
Bob Thompson, a TV expert at Syracuse University, noted
that ESPN's coverage of the Masters gave little mention to
Woods' affairs and that fact lessened its appeal for a big
segment of the audience.
"Usually this kind of thing would have been exploited to
the hilt and this time it wasn't," Thompson said. "The way this
is being covered is less a concentration on the soap opera and
more on the kind of yeoman duty of playing a game golf."
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte
and Bill Trott)