As sponsors step back, Tiger Woods's public popularity is taking a dive

Accenture PLC became the first major sponsor to cut ties with Tiger Woods. Swiss watch maker Tag Heuer has said they will continue to work with him. PR consultant Peter Himler takes a look at what may be ahead for the world's top golfer. (Dec. 14)
By Barry Svrluga and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When consulting giant Accenture tied itself to Tiger Woods six years ago, there was perhaps no more reliable brand in sports. Now, in the wake of Woods's admission of infidelity and his subsequent leave from tournament golf, Accenture has dropped Woods as its spokesman and AT&T is evaluating its relationship with the world's best golfer, the clearest indications that corporations are being cautious regarding their links to Woods.

It appears Woods's image has been damaged among the general public as well. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that more than four in 10 Americans hold an unfavorable view of Woods, whose mere appearance in tournaments has fundamentally changed the perception of the events since he first turned pro in 1996.

The poll also shows that more than a third of Americans -- whether they count themselves as golf fans or not -- say they believe companies should not continue to use Woods to endorse their products and services.

"The question that each of these companies is asking is, 'What are we trying to accomplish with this association?' " said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "What does the scandal do to harm or hinder that objective? Do we feel that this is survivable and fixable in the long run?"

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine identified Woods as the first athlete with more than $1 billion in career earnings, and his corporate relationships annually bring in far more money than he makes on the PGA Tour. Perhaps his most identifiable -- and certainly his longest-lasting -- corporate bond has been with Nike, which introduced him with a well-received "Hello World" campaign when he turned pro.

On Monday, the Sports Business Journal reported that Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight said that risking potential scandal is "part of the game" when signing athletes to represent products.

"I think he's been really great," Knight said in the interview. "When his career is over, you'll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it now."

The Post-ABC poll shows that the public is likely considering Woods's personal conduct when evaluating its opinion of the 14-time major champion. In a random national sample of 1,003 adults conducted by phone last Thursday through Sunday, 43 percent said they view Woods unfavorably. More than one in four viewed him in a "strongly" negative light.

That represents a significant drop-off in popularity for Woods. Eighty-eight percent of respondents to a Gallup/CNN poll in 2000 viewed Woods "favorably," and as recently as June 2005, a Gallup poll put that rating at 85 percent.

Men tilt favorably toward Woods (46 percent favorable, 41 unfavorable), while women generally have a more negative view (39 percent favorable, 45 unfavorable). Among those who count themselves as golf fans, Woods fares a little better, with 62 percent seeing him favorably, but 37 percent now viewing him negatively.

Experts in public relations and crisis management have questioned Woods's handling of his case in regards to public perception since his Nov. 27 single-car accident led to revelations that he had been unfaithful to his wife of five years, Elin Nordegren, who is also the mother of his two young children. Woods addressed the issues only on his personal Web site, first issuing a statement on Nov. 29 calling the accident "embarrassing," following with a Dec. 2 statement admitting to "transgressions" and expressing remorse, and finally announcing Friday that he would take an "indefinite break from professional golf" because of the "hurt that my infidelity has caused so many people."

"They've done pretty terribly," said Adam Goldberg, an expert in public affairs issues at the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe LLP. "Here you have a situation where he knew early on what the extent of his issues were. We still don't know everything. If you have somebody giving you advice, it should be to come out and say what you know, not to try to cloak himself in privacy. Given who he is, he should've had an understanding that he wouldn't have much privacy.

"You shouldn't have to go out there one, two or three times and get killed in dribs and drabs. You should make sure the story got out there, and not let it play out over time."

On Saturday, Gillette said it would play down its use of Woods in ads for shaving cream and razors. Gatorade previously dropped its Tiger Woods drink, though the company said that decision was made prior to the scandal. Other sponsors such as video game maker EA Sports have stood by Woods.

Whether Woods can rebuild his brand -- both in the corporate world and with the public -- remains to be seen. Basketball star Kobe Bryant, for instance, is regularly used in endorsements nearly five years after admitting to infidelity and being accused of sexual assault; criminal charges were dropped, and Bryant settled a civil lawsuit.

"You start with the hope that he gets back to what he's known for, and continues to perform at a very high level," Swangard said of Woods. "Kobe was churning out [81]-point games in the aftermath of his case. People will want to see him do what caused them to be interested in him in the first place, and that was being the greatest athlete in his sport, perhaps ever. Inevitably, he will need to reach out and communicate with different stakeholder groups that have been harmed in this process."

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