Making the Case for Tiger’s Comeback

December 11, 2009 | Fox Business

Matt Egan

After more than two weeks of rumors about his alleged infidelities, the pristine image of Tiger Woods has been shattered.

Few sports fans, or non-sports fans, will ever think of him in the same light — simply as the greatest golfer on the planet. Instead, they will likely think of the seemingly never-ending string of women with whom he is said to have had affairs. So Tiger’s image — the one that helped make him the sports world’s first $1 billion man — is significantly impaired.

No recovering from that, right?

Not necessarily. At least one marketing guru predicts Tiger will not just recover but actually stands to benefit from the scandal because it has brought this larger-than-life figure back down to earth, and opened him up to new opportunities.

“A year from now, people are going to be lining up at the door,” said Rob Frankel, a marketing expert who predicted the comebacks of Martha Stewart and Don Imus, whose radio show is simulcasted on FOX Business. “It shows the man is a man. If anything, it pierces that media-created veil and actually brings dimension to him. He’s actually jumped off the paper. Now we want to know more about Tiger the guy.”

Pointing to the comebacks of former President Bill Clinton, and NBA star Kobe Bryant, Frankel said he sees Tiger’s marketability being “huge” a year removed from the scandal.

Improbable Comeback?

To be sure, Frankel is in the minority. And any Tiger comeback would likely need to include continued dominance on the golf course instead of just the tabloids.

“It might help him in the long run by making him seem more relatable, but right now I think you’d have to be very optimistic to call this a positive development for the Tiger brand,” Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern, wrote in an e-mail.

Asked if Tiger stands to gain from the controversy, Marshall Glickman, CEO of sports consulting firm G2 Strategic and former president of the Portland Trailblazers, laughed. “I don’t buy that argument,” he said. “Whether he likes it or not, I think his image is going to be tainted for a long time. Brands don’t generally want to be associated with tainted images.”

Glickman’s argument appears to be supported by some early data, which suggest at least a short-term erosion of Woods’s brand.

Tiger’s buzz score jumped 21 percentage points in Millward Brown’s celebrity branding study after the scandal broke but it was driven by a surge in his negative buzz from 2% to 80%. The study also found a 10 percentage point decline in consumers’ affinity towards Tiger.

“That type of negativity is not something a sponsor brand wants to be associated with in the longer term,” said Ann Green, senior vice president for marketing solutions at Millward Brown. “The icon-based status he once had will almost assuredly be gone and it’s not recoverable. I am quite skeptical that his image could be improved” by the scandal.

Tiger’s scores on the Davie Brown Index, which is used to quantify a celebrity’s ability to influence consumer decisions, fell from sixth overall to 24th out of 2,800 total celebs. While he ranks lower than Will Smith, Michael Jordan and Tom Hanks, his score is still in between that of Julia Roberts and Colin Powell.

Davie Brown Entertainment said Tiger’s endorsement ranking tumbled from seventh to 113th and his aspiration ranking plummeted from fourth to 773rd.

“You can’t try to sell yourself as something different and then turn around and be a hypocrite,” said Glickman, alluding to Tiger’s previously pristine image.

Sponsors Stay the Course

Despite the troubling figures, Tiger’s sponsors haven’t publicly blinked.

“We can’t do anything but stand by someone who has been such a great partner with us,” Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello told FOX Business earlier this week. “It’s not that I don’t care… But right now this is about his game and his name associated with our game.”

After Woods admitted to “transgressions,” many of his sponsors issued statements of support, including Nike, Pepsico’s Gatorade, Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets and EA.

“For now Tiger’s sponsors will stand behind him. Each sponsor has invested millions in the relationship; walking away would not be smart financially and might create a negative backlash from Tiger fans,” said Calkins.

Tiger took a hit after Gatorade discontinued a Tiger-branded drink earlier this week. But the beverage maker said the decision was made before the scandal, the drink’s sales were down 34% year-to-date and Gatorade is said to be reeling from its less-than-stellar “What’s G?” advertising strategy.

Following in Clinton’s Footsteps?

There is, of course, some precedent for Tiger coming back stronger than ever. Martha Stewart’s career was thought to be over when she went to jail in 2004 for charges related to an insider trading investigation. Today she is estimated by Forbes to be worth $638 million.

Clinton’s presidency was in doubt after he admitted to lying to the world about having an extramarital affair in 1998. Today he takes in hundreds of thousands of dollars a speech and is viewed favorably by most Americans.

While he agrees the alleged affairs change Tiger’s image, Frankel said it could be a positive change for Tiger and even the sport of golf, which is expected to see a decline from last year’s record $124 million in revenue due to the economy.

“You don’t see a lot of tattooed golfers. What this has done for golf is it’s made it okay to play it. It’s not a sissy sport. Now real men can play it,” said Frankel.

At the same time, Tiger could see his name and face attached to products that may have been seen as off-limits pre-scandal, such as aftershave.

“There are places he can go now he just didn’t have access to” in the past, said Frankel. “The fact is women are saying, ‘This is a side of you I haven’t seen.’ Men are looking at this and saying, ‘Right on, dawg.’”

Then again, many women, who tend to make a great deal of a household’s purchasing decisions, are seeing Tiger in a negative light for allegedly cheating on his wife.

“I’ll continue to watch him. I’m more interested in his athletic skills. My wife on the other hand, she’s very disappointed in Tiger as a person,” Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, recently told FOX Business. “My perception of Tiger is as an athlete and a golfer. But a lot of women see Tiger as a person, a father, as a husband and as a beautiful personality. What’s going on now tends to diminish that perception.”

At the end of the day, the odds seem stacked against Woods becoming a more marketable star than he was pre-scandal. But it’s tough to argue the scandal didn’t change his image.

“This was the event that put hair on his chest,” said Frankel.