Tiger Woods: From $100m man to nowhere man

The agony and ignominy continue for Tiger Woods as the list of alleged mistresses grows longer and the list of friends shorter.

“In light of the recent developments surrounding Tiger Woods and his family, I will not pursue legislation awarding him the congressional gold medal this session,” declared Joe Baca, a congressman from the golfer’s home state of California.

The golfer has never shown much interest in politics, so he is unlikely to care that his chance of receiving the United States’s highest civilian honour has passed. Yet if Woods is indifferent to sensitivities of elected officials, he and his advisers care very much indeed about a multimillion-dollar brand they have built around the talent and persona of a man who in 13 years has become the most recognisable figure in sport.

It is 21 days since Woods crashed his SUV outside his home in Orlando, Florida—three weeks that have seen him transformed from a sporting icon to a pilloried recluse. In that time the number of witnesses to his supposed infidelity has grown exponentially: the swimsuit model, the cocktail waitress, the porn star, the pancake server and club hostess.
That was just the start.

But the decision to remain hidden from public view since the accident may have been his biggest public relations mistake—and, perhaps most humiliatingly for such a proud man, it has become a running joke.

The late-night comics, always a good bellwether of American opinion, have had a field day at his expense, not least David Letterman, who devoted his Top 10 list this week to “Ways that Tiger Woods can improve his image”.

But if Letterman’s audience was laughing, the multinationals who have invested millions in Woods—he makes an estimated $100-million annually from sponsorship deals—have been taking a more cold-hearted view.

Publicly, the majority of his sponsors have issued supportive statements. Nike, which has built its golf equipment brand (worth an estimated $800-million a year) around Woods, and Gillette, which has featured him alongside tennis champion Roger Federer in a long-running campaign, are, for now, hanging in there.

Yet one of Woods’s most visible sponsors, the telephone company AT&T (its corporate logo is displayed across his golf bag), has declined to comment on the scandal that has engulfed its star pitchman.

Meanwhile, it emerged this week the drinks company PepsiCo, which less than two years ago trumpeted a deal to manufacture a brand of its Gatorade drink called Tiger Focus (said to be worth $100-million to the golfer in the long run), was discontinuing the line. The decision had been taken months before, a company spokesperson insisted, and indeed the news appeared in trade magazine Beverage Digest. But the golfer’s name was noticeably absent from the list of athletes on the company website.

From $100-million man to nowhere man—the symbolism was hardly helpful. Neither was the news that not one sponsor’s advert featuring Woods had appeared on US television since November 29, two days after the crash, or that his reputation with consumers has taken a hit. According to the Davie-Brown Index, which tracks the US public’s opinion of celebrities, he has fallen from sixth on the list of celebrity endorsers to 24th. “He was Teflon until a week ago and some of that Teflon has worn off,” said Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman.

Yet Woods’s corporate empire will not crumble so easily. His name is so entwined with some sponsors—Nike is the most obvious—that it would be almost unthinkable for them to drop him.

“Brands look at how impactful a spokesperson can be for their brand, but also what the public outcry or public opinion would be,”
said David Schwab of Octagon First Call, a US-based company involved in celebrity endorsement.

“If a brand drops him, potentially there could be negativity towards the brand for doing so. That’s why brands typically weather the storm.”

Apart from golf, Woods is an avid sports fan, so he will be only too aware that athletes such as the basketball player Kobe Bryant, who was accused of rape in 2004 (the case was later dismissed), managed to rebuild their image in the aftermath of cataclysmic scandal. David Beckham, too, was once accused of marital infidelity—a charge that had no noticeable effect on his popularity or earning power.

Yet while Bryant was very public in confronting the allegations against him, Woods has been in hiding since the storm broke.
With talkshow hosts clamouring to secure the “first” interview and PR men cluttering up cable television sets to explain exactly why stony silence is the worst way to handle a crisis, no one knows what Woods’s next move will be, only that it should come quickly. Will his first post-scandal appearance be on the sofa with Oprah, or will it be where Woods is most comfortable—on the first tee of a PGA Tour event? The smart money is on the latter.—

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