Four years ago, Phil Mickelson studied an 18-foot putt on the final hole at Augusta National Golf Club. Sink it, and he would win The Masters.
He tapped the ball downhill and watched. After what must have seemed like a never-ending roll, it dropped into the cup, giving Mickelson his first major after 12 frustrating years as a pro. The man known as Lefty leapt into the Georgia air, arms raised, a yell of ecstasy bellowing from his wide-open mouth.
Today, that picture of an airborne Mickelson adorns advertisements for Rolex watches. And the 37-year-old’s endorsement earnings are soaring higher than he could ever jump.
Fortune magazine estimated Mickelson’s endorsement income at $47 million last year, far surpassing his earnings playing golf, which were a paltry (in comparison) $5.8 million. In fact, Mickelson’s career earnings, stretching back 16 years, fall short of his 2007 endorsement haul.
And his popularity with companies has only grown bigger this year. Even before spring arrived, he had struck a multi-year pact with Barclay’s to put a patch on his shirt, inked a deal with Crowne Plaza to star in commercials (including a humorous spot alluding to his collapse during the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot), and agreed to a three-year contract with KPMG, whose logo will grace his headwear “during all golf-related appearances,” according to the company.
Of course, Mickelson remains far behind Tiger Woods – the $100 million man – in endorsement income. But that’s not really a fair measuring stick. Mickelson – despite winning only three majors since 1992 – is the second most-marketable athlete in U.S. sports. The NBA’s LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal combined bring in less money than Mickelson on his own.
According to a recent Davie-Brown Index, which determines a celebrity’s ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchases, Mickelson fares OK in terms of appeal, but nowhere near where an athlete with his kind of endorsement income should be. Mickelson is on par with celebrities such as Bernie Mac and Tony Danza; his appeal falls short of the rankings of Robin Williams. In terms of trust, Mickelson is neck and neck with Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, which isn’t exactly impressive, considering Mickelson’s career has lasted much longer and he’s enjoyed far greater exposure nationally than Yao.
Since he doesn’t register off-the-chart marketing strength with the public, how has Mickelson attracted so many sponsors over the years?
”Before he won his first major, it was a good story because he came so close (like at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst). A lot of people got behind him for that,” said Darin David, account director for Millsport, the sports marketing agency of The Marketing Arm in Dallas. ”He’s a professional guy who doesn’t make a lot of waves. That’s appealing to the type of companies that are doing marketing around golf.” For those watching on Sundays, his PGA Tour victories always generate a welcome sight on television: the greeting of his blonde wife Amy and three adorable kids when Mickelson departs the 18th green.
Said David: “There’s always that emotional connection when you see his kids. Sponsors love to see that.”
Of course, Mickelson’s commitments to more than half a dozen sponsors, who slap logos on his shirt and cap and who feature the Arizona State graduate in a number of commercials, create the possibility of overexposure. At the moment, though, that seems unlikely, since Woods is such a huge presence. No matter how exposed Mickelson is, his presence will seem tiny compared to the game’s preeminent golfer.
Mickelson’s No. 2 ranking in endorsements among pro golfers seems to be safe. According to Golf Digest, Vijay Singh is the next-closest among active PGA Tour players, earning about $20 million in 2006. Mickelson’s biggest competitor in the years ahead may be the LPGA’s Michelle Wie, who brought in $19.5 million as a teenager in 2006.
Considering the off-course earnings among former greats who are senior citizens, the future looks bright for Mickelson. Arnold Palmer raked in more than $27 million two years ago, with one-time foe Jack Nicklaus posting a score of $17.5 million in endorsement income. As long as Mickelson isn’t beset by scandal, he can be assured of eight-figure annual endorsements for at least the next three decades.
In Augusta, Mickelson is gunning for his third Masters in five years. If Zach Johnson places the size 43 long green jacket on Mickelson this Sunday, those firms, such as Barclay’s, who just claimed a stake in Lefty will be the ones doing the jumping.