Golf fans and a curious public hotly await Tiger Woods’s media appearance on Friday at 11 a.m. EST (the event can be seen live on Fox Business Network). But corporate America may be watching even more closely.
Executives are weighing whether to extend current deals or offer new sponsorship opportunities to the golf great and mega-million dollar pitchman.
“He’s not the same Tiger Woods he was a year ago in terms of marketability, but over a period of time the public will, if not forget, it will forgive,” says Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications.
Pilson notes this marketing mulligan that begins with a carefully crafted speech will be scrutinized for its tone as much as its words: “If he’s contrite and apologetic, expresses regret and remorse, he can build back a good part of the marketing, advertising, and sponsor deals he had in the past.”
“Tiger’s the number one athlete on the planet. He’s a huge attraction and of great interest to fans and the public and advertisers.”
That interest has made Woods the highest paid athlete on the planet. He reportedly raked in $90 million to $110 million annually before his fall from grace that began with a late-night November car crash and subsequent public admission to letting his family down by committing “transgressions” (a number of women have publicly claimed they carried on sexual affairs with the golfer, who has since undergone treatment for sex addiction).
“Our experience seems to be with other athletes that they can recover from personal issues like dysfunctional marriages or even criminal activity and still be attractive to advertisers,” says Pilson, who oversaw broadcast coverage of the Masters and other golf tournaments when he was president of CBS Sports.
“It may take longer for him to work his way back for sponsors that are dependent on character rather than athletics, but if he stays clean and reconciles with his wife and family, he can get back to 75% to 80% of his endorsements.”
Most sports business executives agree that time will help repair Tiger’s image as long as he stays out of the tabloids, but the overriding factor to help him regain honors on Madison Avenue is simply winning.
“Tiger’s got to come back and win,” says the head of an influential sports business firm who did not want his name used. “The reason you sponsor him is he wins, not because of his winning persona.”
The executive says Woods’s income may take “a 15%-20% negative swing from his high, and that’s if he plays well. If he doesn’t play well, no one will forget about his problems and they’ll dump on him. If he’s a good golfer, no one cares if he’s a bad guy.”
Of course, some of these companies have the most to lose if Woods does not return. Nike created its entire golf apparel & equipment line around Woods, while Electronic Arts has branded its perennial best-selling golf title with Tiger Woods’s name since 1999.
The latest version of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Golf game is set to tee off in June. An EA spokeswoman tells Fox Business the video game maker’s relationship with Woods has not changed and that an announcement regarding the game’s marketing plans will be released on Friday after Tiger’s media event.
While Tiger’s video game version will tee it up anew in June, it’s unknown when he will return to the links in real life. Some observers are pointing to the Tavistock Cup next month. The two-day, made-for-TV event will be held in Woods’s gated community, so he could stroll to the first tee box. It would also be a much more controlled environment since press and spectators are more restricted than at other PGA tour events.
There is also a business tie between Woods and Tavistock Group, the real estate company that owns the community and organized the event. Woods and fellow pro golf neighbor Ernie Els are involved with a Tavistock development in the Bahamas.
Other sponsors have not stayed with the golfer. AT&T (T) and Accenture (ACN) dropped Woods after reports of his indiscretions began to flood the media.
Pepsi’s (PEP) Gatorade unit dropped its Tiger Focus brand late last year but says the decision was made prior to Woods’s domestic issues forced his current hiatus. Gatorade spokespeople, however, have been very cagey about whether they have completely cut ties with the golfer.
Gillette (G) and luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer have distanced themselves, pulling ads but not their sponsorship agreements with Woods.
Media data company Nielsen reports that Gillette was the last sponsor to air an ad featuring Woods, on November 29th. Perhaps even more interesting, Nielsen says the Woods airwaves embargo was broken by the PGA, which featured him in a promo this past weekend. That may have been the first, subliminal step in the rehabilitation of the game’s best and most popular player.
Will it work?
“Friday’s a positive first step, we’re a very forgiving country,” says Peter Stern, president of STRATEGIC, a sports and entertainment agency. “He’ll need to perform inside the ropes and walk the walk outside.”
And while Woods’s stock is clearly down, Stern doesn’t think there will be many sponsors trying to buy his endorsement on the cheap. “I would think brands today would be more conservative. There’s a bit of wait and see. Winning is a big part of it, but given the publicity outside of winning, he’ll have to live up to what he’s saying.”