Sponsors, it’s time to break those links
My Christmas gift to you, dear reader, was to be that I would not write about Tiger Woods -- philandering golf god, emotionally retarded frat boy and straight-up liar. I think we’re all pretty sick of it. Unfortunately, his sponsors keep dropping him like wormy fruit (Tag Heuer bumped him off their billboards last week). And so, given my charter, I am obliged.
My take-away is simply this: Sponsors, run. It doesn’t matter if you’re backing Davis Love III or Ernie Els or Vijay Singh; save your money. Honda, Deutsche Bank, MasterCard, Shell, make a break for it. For the immediate future, the branding opportunities of professional golf have been utterly vacated by l’affair d’tigre. Tiger Woods was and is the sum and whole of the game. He was and is the purest, most unalloyed product of the sport and culture of golf. And when all that is golf was cooked in fate’s crucible and poured down this young man’s gullet, the result was the perfect player who hasn’t breathed an honest breath in years, a jerk -- Joe Francis with a 400-yard drive. Tiger’s failure is golf’s summary bankruptcy and indictment.
Camelot fell when Lancelot sinned against the realm. Same deal here.
Get out now, sponsors. The golf brand has been wrecked.
Tiger was always an enormously redemptive figure, a kid who took a historically exclusionist game -- that by its very nature catered to the landed and leisure -- and made it cool, youthful, inclusive, hip. Think about Woods’ roster of corporate sponsors: AT&T, Accenture, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Nike. This murderers’ row of scary corporate America is consistent with what we know about golf, which skews dramatically conservative in both business and culture, and especially so at the nexus of the two.
As the New York Times’ Randy Cohen noted in a column titled “Is Golf Unethical?” the Augusta National Golf Club -- home to the Masters Tournament and scene of Woods’ stunning 12-stroke victory in 1997 -- wasn’t racially desegregated until 1990 and still doesn’t have any female members. Golf, too, is unusual for retaining the unreconstructed gender formulation embodied in the “Ladies” Professional Golf Assn.
Woods’ Death Star-corporate sponsors were transformed by him, born again in his beautiful, athletic, post-racial image. And along with them, the game itself seemed instantly current.
Without Woods, the game trails off and rolls back into the weeds of cultural irrelevance, long weekend tourneys among more or less evenly matched men in more or less equally ugly clothes slapping balls around while the real players get loaded in corporate hospitality tents. There is no heroism in golf without Tiger -- at least the Tiger we thought we knew -- no drama, and scant male pulchritude besides. Unless your business is actual golf balls or clubs (Titleist or Ping or whatever), I’d say your marketing dollars could be best spent elsewhere.
And, of course, as a practical matter, there will be far fewer eyeballs watching golf on TV. Various estimates have the viewing audience sans Tiger dropping by 50%. Who knows if they’ll ever come back.
The illusion that professional golf was somehow a sport with a higher calling, a game of honor and ethics played by fundamentally decent men, has been shattered. This isn’t about counting strokes you took while nobody’s watching. Tiger’s trollop-taking is precisely the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from pro basketball and football players -- and, shamefully, our indifference implies consent. For the most dominant golfer of all time to be so caddish seems to be a signal that lesser golfers transgress in lesser degrees. In any event, the safe harbor of golf’s presumed decency has been drained. Meanwhile, now that the tabloid press has had a taste for golfer flesh, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to live through a season of golf-related exposes. All the more reason for marketers to pull up stakes.
One sponsor that as yet hasn’t abandoned Tiger is Nike, and for the worst reason of all. Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, told SportsBusiness Journal that athletes’ personal indiscretions were “part of the game” and predicted that after a brief hullabaloo, this would all blow over for Tiger. Knight is probably right -- after all, Michael Vick is back in cleats. But as a consumer, I don’t think I’ll ever look at the Nike swoosh the same again. This is the cross-trainer you wear to strip clubs in Las Vegas?
A common refrain -- tellingly, among men, especially -- is that Tiger’s womanizing has nothing to do with golf and is personal and private. Wrong. It has everything to do with golf, because he is the very embodiment of the game for millions of fans who would be otherwise indifferent to it. Tiger is the human corollary to the game’s marketing and monetary value.
And it certainly pertains to sponsorship, because the psychology of athletic endorsement -- wherein Tiger likes Nike and I buy Nike and somehow, in a kind of transitive magic, I am like Tiger -- depends on whether I want to be like Tiger.
I do not.