Image: Chevron World Challenge Preview
Harry How  /  Getty Images
A picture of Tiger Woods in front of the 18th green during the Chevron World Challenge preview at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Woods announced Monday that he is backing out of his own tourney.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/2/2009 2:31:39 PM ET 2009-12-02T19:31:39

Tiger Woods Inc. — a meticulously manicured, $1 billion brand — has sustained its first divot.

How deep is the financial hole? How fast can the dirt be patched? The answers, according to some of marketing’s top minds, depend on Woods’ follow-through and whether additional hazards lurk in the weeds. Hazards like more whispers (or worse) of marital infidelity. Hazards like continuing police probes.

Despite a bunkered icon measuring his words and scant facts beyond a crumpled Caddy and a man’s lacerated lip, business experts seem to agree that Woods’ peculiar, post-Thanksgiving front-yard car crash is not likely to trim the golfer’s lush endorsement empire. Years of on-course mastery and a generally immaculate image give Woods vast personal equity with fans, the public and corporate America.

And as indiscretions go, this is not Michael Vick, say sports marketers. This is not Michael Phelps. This is not Kobe Bryant. Not yet, anyway.

“I’m convinced that this will not cause the end of Tiger Woods Inc. as we know it,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

“He’s built a cache of goodwill that’s a mile and a half deep,” said Peter Shankman, founder of The Geek Factory, a New York marketing and public-relations strategy firm. “He’s not Eliot Spitzer. He’s not Paris Hilton. He is Tiger. And other than mouthing (an occasional curse word) on NBC Sports after a bad shot, he’s had no problems. He hasn’t killed anyone. He didn’t run over a person. Hell, he didn’t run over a dog.

“That being said, let’s see what happens now with the (National Enquirer-alleged) mistress and with the cops. The cops haven’t said what they’re going to do, if they do anything,” Shankman said. “That’s a different game.”

Muddying the matter, of course, has been Woods’ decision not to speak to police following the Nov. 27 accident. At 2:25 a.m., Woods drove his 2009 Cadillac SUV out of his Windermere, Fla., driveway, abruptly clipped a fire hydrant and then hit a tree. His wife, Elin Nordegren, told officers that upon hearing the crash, she dashed outside to investigate then used a golf club to break open the SUV’s rear window and help her husband escape the vehicle. The wreck came after a report, days earlier, in the National Enquirer that linked Woods romantically with Rachel Uchitel, a New York nightclub hostess. Uchitel subsequently denied any affair.

Woods, the first $1 billion-earning athlete, said Sunday through his Web site: “The many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.” On Monday, he announced that his crash injuries would prevent him from playing in his own tournament — the Chevron World Challenge — which opens play Wednesday in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

To be sure, the chain of events was ugly. But it’s been Woods’ lack of explanation that has tainted his once-shimmering brand with “a stigma,” said Robert Tuchman, executive vice president of Premier Global Sports, based in Bannockburn, Ill. As a corporate face and pitchman for Nike, American Express, AT&T and six other companies, Woods’ endorsement income has quadrupled his PGA Tour winnings. In 2008, he pocketed $105 million in sponsorship deals, according to Sports Illustrated. Nike and Gatorade have released statements reinforcing their ties to Woods.

“The problem is not so much what happened but the way he’s handling it, not being forthright, not coming out and being completely honest,” Tuchman said. “His endorsers are not going to drop him. Unfortunately, though, a lot of people who were thinking possibly about using him for an endorsement, they might just withhold. A lot of marketers don’t get near someone who potentially could get into a situation like this.”

Such damage assessments of an icon’s marketing muscle expose the odd system of justice that exists only on Madison Avenue. In the endorsement world, smoking marijuana — as Michael Phelps admitted doing — or drunken driving, of which numerous star athletes have been convicted, are simply not as career-tarnishing as cheating on a spouse, said Bob Williams, the CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, based in Evanston, Ill.

“Is the story line going to stay the same? Or is there going to be another female who comes out of the woodwork now, claiming some kind of relationship with him?” Williams asked. “We only have to go back to Kobe Bryant to see what can happen when an A-list celebrity is not faithful to his wife, and what that can do to his endorsement career.”

In 2003, the Eagle, Colo., sheriff’s office arrested Bryant in connection with a sexual assault charge filed by a 19-year-old employee at a hotel where Bryant had stayed. The Los Angeles Lakers star denied the rape allegation but publically admitted to a sexual encounter with his accuser. Authorities later dropped the criminal case, but Bryant’s once-elite status as a corporate face and spokesman lapsed and never fully recovered.

“It has taken him years to resurrect his endorsement career,” Williams said. “He’s done a pretty good job of getting back into that world. But it would be so much more given the NBA title he just won. He could have been in the stratospheric level like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. It cost him millions and millions of dollars. With Tiger, it’s too early to say. It could be very damaging to him if someone else were to step out and claim infidelity.

“It’s a topic you definitely want to stay away from if you’re an A-list athlete. Infidelity is a terrible thing. But it seems like there are other things that happen to celebrities that are just as bad — or worse — for which the public seems to be more forgiving.”

The Tiger Woods brand has largely been forged by his iceman perfection on the course — his almost robotic ability to concentrate past all distractions and study the next shot, the terrain, and the conditions, and then to execute. He is often fiery at play yet always tightly controlled when speaking with the media. Could this momentary glimpse into his mortal, regular-guy side perhaps soften or alter his long-standing brand?

“It does humanize him,” Tuchman said. “(Companies) use him in a lot of ways because he is this guy who is Superman, who doesn’t seem human. But this might add another element — this guy has problems too, just like you and me.”

“A brand is like a sponge — you’re going to pull in a lot of different things along the way,” added the University of Oregon’s Swangard. “Tiger has mostly positive connotations. He’s been a well-managed brand. He’s got smart people around him. The advice to him should be to deal with this in a way that is authentic to who he is. But don’t let it drag on.

“We always say goodwill is like a retirement account. Well, he’s going to have to dip into that account in the short term. But I expect him to come out fully intact in the long run.”

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Video: Tiger Woods' sponsors staying put

  1. Closed captioning of: Tiger Woods' sponsors staying put

    >>> properly cleared to be admitted.

    >>> and there is an unusual public apology tonight from tiger woods for what he is calling his transgressions. after a car crash late at night outside his house triggered a growing number of published reports about his personal life . and the florida highway patrol is going public with new information about the accident. our own mark potter has the very latest from orlando.

    >> reporter: when he finally acknowledged tabloid reports about his personal life that had been swirling for days, tiger woods admitted wrongdoing but offered no details and asked for privacy. on his website he said, "i have let my family down and i regret those transgressions with all of my heart. i have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. i am not without faults." woods also made a point of addressing questions raised after his accident about whether he and his wife, elin, had been fighting at the time. he wrote, "the stories in particular that physical violence played any role in the car accident were utterly false and malicious." woods' posting on his website came in the wake of numerous reports in the tabloid press and on the internet alleging marital infidelities including an " us weekly " report about one woman claiming to have had an affair with woods and to have received a voice mail from him.

    >> hey, it's -- it's tiger. i need you to do me a huge favor. can you please take your name off your phone? my wife went through my phone and may be calling you.

    >> reporter: while the voice on the phone has not been confirmed to be tiger woods , just hours after its release woods' apology appeared on his website.

    >> the big mistake that tiger made is not saying this or releasing this four days ago. it's been the water torture, drip, drip, drip every day --

    >> reporter: despite the bad news, two of woods' big sponsors backed him today. nike said, "our relationship remains unchanged." and gatorade said, "tiger and his family have our support." in florida today authorities released the accident report and photographs after charging woods yesterday with careless driving and saying there would be no further investigation. and with that over it is now tiger woods ' personal crisis drawing public attention. mark potter , nbc news, orlando.

    >>> weather making news across big

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