Saturday, December 5, 2009

Awww, Tiger...

The news this week about Tiger Woods’ transgressions – and I think it’s safe to assume we are looking at something beyond the point of mere allegation – left me surprised and disappointed. And I should know better.

Athletes and celebrities have been a big part of my professional life for many years. I’ve signed dozens of them to endorsement deals for my brands…deals that include TV and radio commercials, print ads, packaging, appearances. With athletes, as the contract is inked, I hope for three things: one, that my guy stays healthy and on top of his or her game; two, that he motivates my customer to buy more of my stuff; and three, that he keeps his nose clean. Mostly so that my customer will buy more of my stuff.

Before an athlete enters the stratosphere of endorsement deals, he’s got the top-of-the-game part down pat. In most cases, he’s been training since he was single-digits-old, carefully steered and groomed by coaches, team managers, trainers, athletic directors. It’s all about performance…on the field, on the court, in the pool. The off-the-field rules are as clear – and as strictly enforced – as the on-the-field rules.

But here’s the rub. When his performance becomes so good that endorsement deals begin to appear, he enters a game for which he has absolutely no training, and the odds are decidedly stacked against him.

He’s now playing the celebrity game.

You’ve got a taste for some champagne? Snap your fingers.  Done. Table at a five-star restaurant, right now?  Done. A little something to take the edge off?  Done. That cute little brunette over there?  Done. You can have what you want, whenever you want it. For many young athletes, the world becomes a blur of insiders and outsiders trying to satisfy their every whim and curry their favor. And always, always, there are throngs of women who draw no lines in the quest to bask in the halo of celebrity.

Why are we surprised when our athlete-heroes can no longer distinguish between that which is acceptable and that which is not?

But back to that pesky contract, and the keeping clean of one’s nose. Those of us who see what could sometimes be called the filthy underbelly of celebrity are, thankfully, a precious few. The athlete’s public face is what’s real to millions of consumers and fans. What’s it worth? According to mediaedge:cia, a whopping 25% of consumers report their purchase was influenced – either positively or negatively – by a celebrity endorser. Among Millennials, 30% of 18-34-year-olds said they would try a product promoted by an admired celebrity. “Admired” is the operative word…and as a marketer, that’s what I’m buying when I trade my corporate cash for a celebrity endorsement.

I do have some appreciation for the argument that star athletes pay a hefty price for their celebrity, in terms of relinquishing privacy and being held to a role-model standard while they are still, at the end of the day, only human. That’s why the Tiger Woods debacle is such a disappointment – I can no longer point to him as a great example of how it can be done.

Worse still – at least worse for Tiger’s corporate partners – we’re not talking about simply shelving a commercial until the dust settles, as Subway did with their Michael Phelps spots after the notorious bong incident. Pulling a spot, or postponing a media tour, may be aggravating and expensive, but probably wouldn’t have permanent impact on the brand. The Tiger endorsement machine, on the other hand, is unrivalled in sports from a financial perspective, and arguably in a category of just two (Michael Jordan in his hey-day being the other). He has endorsement deals with Nike, Gillette, Accenture, AT&T and American Express, among others, that total $100 million annually, according to Forbes. But we’re not talking just commercials here…we’re talking whole product lines. Try to fathom the number of zeroes in the cost to Gatorade to pull the Tiger drink off the shelves. Imagine the gnashing of teeth at Nike’s offices as they contemplate the impact on The Tiger Woods Collection of apparel at thousands of retailers…and right at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, no less. "Nike supports Tiger and his family. Our relationship remains unchanged," said Nike Golf spokeswoman Beth Gast. "Tiger and his family have our support as they work through this private matter," said Gatorade.

I’d be saying the same thing. At least for now.

"A lot of the brands have built their entire positioning platforms around him," said Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University, to the New York Daily News. What does that mean in dollars and cents? To Tiger, 87% of his one billion dollars in earnings – yes, that’s billion, with a b – have come from endorsement income. To the brands that bear his name, the value may be incalculable.

Might the whole thing blow over in time? History would suggest it will. Kobe Bryant today is one of the top athlete endorsers in professional sports, even after he was accused (though not convicted) of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel worker, and admitting to cheating on his wife. Michael Phelps lost only his Kellogg deal after being photographed with a bong. Michael Vick, after serving jail time for federal dog fighting charges, was welcomed in Philadelphia.

But the pedestal on which Tiger stood was very high. And that could make the fall more damaging.