The FedEx Cup was created in November of 2005 to add some excitement to the end of the PGA Tour golf season. Every professional sport seems to build towards a year end climax, giving the fans something to look forward to all season. On the PGA Tour we have the majors to fill that need. Unfortunately, after the PGA Championship the interest level of the fans and many players falls of significantly, and the television ratings reflect that.
In the past, many of the top players would take breaks from the schedule as the holidays drew nearer, and many tournaments on the tail end of the PGA Tour schedule suffered from low ratings and a lack of star power. Tiger Woods’ emergence on the tour in the late 90s helped drive tournament purses to all time highs, and also made it more expensive to host a tournament. When he doesn’t play, the ratings and fan attendance fall off significantly. As a result, the sponsors don’t get their money’s worth and some were threatening to pull out. The PGA Tour needed a boost at the end of the season.
Most of the other professional sports have a regular season that leads up to the playoffs, where an eventual champion is crowned for the year. The marketing minds in Ponte Vedra Beach thought this system would work too, and they dreamed up the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Starting in 2007, the FedEx Cup became a season ending points race similar to the one used in NASCAR. The top points earner becomes the FedEx Cup champion. In a sleeper, Tiger Woods won the first FedEx Cup by 12,000 points. Over the last two years the PGA Tour has changed the rules to address issues that arose the previous year. In 2008, the changes were designed to allow more golfers a chance to move up the points list as the playoffs go along, and penalize those who skip a playoff event. When Vijay Singh earned enough points in the first three events early in the 2008 campaign, he just had to show up the final week to claim the FedEx Cup. In November of 2008 they changed the rules once again to help ensure that the championship would not be won until the final event.
This year at the season ending Tour Championship only the top 30 players will be eligible to play, with the points resetting so that any player in the field has a chance to win the cup. Any player in the top 30 can win, but the higher ranking players have the greatest chance. The first ranked player starts the Tour Championship with 2500 points, and the 30th ranked player starts the week with 210. Obviously this is to virtually ensure that the top 10 players have the greatest chance to win, since the tour is betting that the top players include most of the star personalities like Tiger, Phil, Ernie, Goosen, Furyk, etc.
So the real question is – does anyone really care about the FedEx Cup? We’ve already mentioned that the television ratings go way up when Tiger is in the field, and the ratings go through the roof when Tiger is on the leader board with other names like Mickelson and Els in contention. If TV viewership is the sole indicator then the FedEx Cup Playoffs are a success. If you ask the players you might get different stories. The whole set up of the playoffs and the points structure are designed to keep the big names on your TV set all the way up to the silly season, which makes the sponsors happy and the tour rich. In fact, the Champions Tour and European tours have adopted similar playoff type systems called the Charles Schwab Cup and the Race to Dubai.
Respect for a golf tournament is usually measured by who shows up to play it, and to a lesser extent by the prize money available. Many golfers would tell you that they would play a major championship like the Masters or US Open even if no prize money were offered, because they want to win a prestigious tournament that many of the games great have won in the past and winning these tournaments makes you a part of history. The FedEx Cup doesn’t have the history or the prestige of a major, but it has the prize money. I suspect we won’t be hearing too many young phenoms saying “I want to win the FedEx Cup.” when asked what they want to accomplish as a professional golfer.
I don’t think the players really care about winning the FedEx Cup as much as they want to win the huge $10 million payout and five year exemption. I think this weakens the whole event into a frantic money grab. People just want to see their favorite players, they don’t care so much about the Cup. Besides, despite the rule changes the winner of the Tour Championship may not necessarily be the winner of the FedEx Cup, so who wants to see someone win the Cup without winning the last event? That would be like the Lakers winning the NBA Finals even if the Magic won the series because they won more games in the playoffs than Orlando. Reset everyone’s points to zero for the Tour Championship and make it a real shootout! Unfortunately I don’t think that will happen, because Tim Finchem wants to hand the Cup to Tiger or Phil, not to Heath Slocum or Ted Purdy.
Let me know what you think. Should the FedEx Cup matter or is it a marketing gimmick? Will the FedEx Cup become a premier event that people really want to win? What do you think?