The most compelling and important athlete in sports history

After his fling with baseball, Michael Jordan’s return to basketball was huge, but not like this.

The loss of Wayne Gretzky was felt by the NHL for a while, but the loss of ESPN was bigger.

The NFL can withstand the loss of any player, including Tom Brady. The integrity of baseball’s best players has been impugned repeatedly over the course of this decade, but attendance has consistently increased.

Tennis hasn’t had an important, compelling figure in almost 20 years.

With that backdrop, there has never been a player as important to his sport, or as compelling, as Tiger Woods in golf. His return to competetive activity this weekend at the Accenture Match Play Championship is not only a boon for the sport, it returns golf to relevance in America.

Check out these stats from USA TODAY.

In Woods’ absence, TV ratings plummeted for the remaining two of the Tour’s four major tournaments last year: down 55% for the PGA Championship, which Woods had won in 2007, and down 11% for the British Open. Irishman Padraig Harrington won both majors in Woods’ absence.

In September, BMW Championship ratings were down 61% in the final round from 2007, when Woods won. This year, ratings for the Buick Invitational were down 53% in the final round from 2008, when Woods won.

Most tournaments do not release attendance figures, but the crowd at last year’s AT&T National near Washington, D.C., was down 32,000 from a year ago when Woods played there. Officials at this year’s Buick Invitational said ticket sales were down 15% to 20% from 2008.

No individual, ever, has had that sort of impact on TV ratings, attendance or the financial well being of his or her sport. Tiger is not only great, he’s compelling enough to be must-see TV.

He’s all alone at the top. The single most important athlete to his sport. Ever.