* Tiger Woods return draws celebrity watchers, sports fans
* Most comments on social networking sites are positive
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, April 9 (Reuters) - 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)