I’ll begin with an admission. I was wrong. Last December, I posted an entry in this space predicting that most of Tiger Woods’ sponsors would stick with him through his troubles. The departures of AT&T, Accenture and Gatorade from Team Tiger prove that Nostradamus and the Amazing Kreskin have nothing to worry about from me.
Granted, I did say that the sponsors would hang in there if there weren’t a large number of further revelations. As we all know, there were. Still, color me wrong.
Which brings us to today. Tiger is back home in Orlando, working on his game. The extremely uncomfortable televised apology is behind him and whatever therapy he was involved in seems to be finished, at least for the time being. I have no idea what shape his marriage is in. It’s none of my business anyway. For me, and for golf fans everywhere, the question now is…when? When will he return to the PGA Tour? Jack Nicklaus says he’d be surprised if Tiger doesn’t play in the Masters, but that looks like speculation on his part. He doesn’t seem to have any inside information.
I hope he’s back for Augusta. But even if he isn’t, he has said that he will be back eventually. When that day comes, I believe some brands will have an opportunity – and a big decision to make. Tiger’s bag used to carry the AT&T logo. If you’re the CMO for Sprint or Verizon, do you make a deal to put your logo there in its place? Gatorade’s gone away. If you control Powerade’s marketing, do you approach the world’s No. 1 golfer about a relationship that will utilize him to stick it to your larger rival? Accenture’s ads now feature real wild animals instead of Tiger. Lots of people age 35-64 with financial portfolios that need managing still watch golf. Do you tie your brand to Tiger?
Before you say no, think about it for a minute. Chances are good you can get a deal for less than the previous guys were paying. And you can’t deny that Tiger’s return will draw some of the biggest audiences in televised golf history – at least for the first few events. Granted, the man’s star has lost a lot of its luster. He will probably never be revered in quite the same way he was before that November night.
What if he comes back playing better than ever, with a renewed purpose and a fierce determination to show the world he’s still the boss inside the ropes? I think the chances are good given his competitive drive, laser focus and limitless skill. Remember, this is the guy who won the U.S. Open playing basically on one leg.
What if all the stuff he said he was going to do actually comes to pass? He straightens out his personal situation and approaches life – and golf – with a greater level of respect?
What if he wins two or three majors in the next 18 months, getting ever closer to Jack’s career record? Do you think he will be a pariah in most peoples’ eyes? I don’t. I’m not sure he is now, but that’s beside the point.
The point is, America, and American sports fans, love a comeback story. The fact that Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez are now being cheered unconditionally by their fans illustrate our willingness to forgive and move on, especially when the biggest stars are involved.
If Tiger comes back in a big way, and manages to stay out of the National Enquirer while he’s doing it, then I believe he can again be a massive marketing force. Maybe not as strong as he once was, but still on a very short list of the world’s biggest. And those brands that stuck with him through the darks days – Nike, EA Sports – will not only receive a big bump but will also be seen as having been loyal to their guy in his time of need. They didn’t cut and run. A lot of sports fans will be impressed.
And if you’re Verizon or Powerade or any other brand willing to take the chance, you’ll be along for the ride too. Say he’s back on top in 2012. How many people will even remember that, back in 2009, he was a spokesman for AT&T and Gatorade? What was Kobe promoting in 2007 or A-Rod in 2008? I don’t remember either.
I think there’s a huge potential upside in taking a chance on Tiger now. Is there a downside? Of course there is. This thing could end up taking away his drive and turning him into just another Tour pro. His personal life could take another strange detour. He could give up the sport and enter a Buddhist monastery. All kinds of stuff could happen. Just look at the last four months. Who could have predicted any of that? But if it doesn’t and he does come back big, in two or three years you and your brand could be seen as the visionaries who took a risk back in 2010.
In marketing circles, you could be what Tiger once was in golf. A hero.