The Man Responsible For Saving Tiger Woods
One of the main reasons why the Tiger Woods story continues to dominate headlines is that it’s splintering into multiple storylines, and now there’s something in it for everyone. If you’re a golf aficionado, you can consider how this scandal will affect his 2010 golf game (and whether his alleged dalliances did in the past). If you’re a gossip fan, you can wrap yourself in the sordid details of Tiger’s alleged mistresses and speculate on what’s happening with his family. And if you just like watching a good old-fashioned American train wreck, well, this is one for the ages.
For those who cast a marketing/finance-angled eye at the story, however — particularly if you’ve got money invested in one of the companies which sponsors Tiger — the Tiger Woods story is rapidly approaching a tipping point.
And while much of the attention has been focused on the various women coming forward with their Tiger tales, there’s another key player in the Tiger Woods story who likely will have a much more significant impact on how this all plays out.
Mark Steinberg, Woods’ longtime agent at IMG, is likely to be one of the major figures in the rebuilding of Tiger’s image, both now and in years to come. He’s been involved with this story since the very beginning; he was one of the people who initially contacted police over Thanksgiving weekend to inform them that Tiger and Elin would not be answering their questions — as, of course, was their legal right. Now, he’s tasked with picking up the pieces after a celebrity fall from grace unparalleled in American history.
And he’s got a monumental challenge ahead of him. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that Woods commercials have been absent from the airwaves; that same day, the Pac-10 became the first sponsor to openly acknowledge that it was pulling advertisements featuring Tiger explicitly because of the ongoing controversy.
Soon afterward, Australia’s WA Today (via Sports By Brooks) reported that Tag Heuer had pulled its brand-new watch campaign featuring Woods. The Australian site noted that Tag Heuer claimed the withdrawal of Woods-featured ads had nothing to do with Woods’ troubles, but quoted a local watch dealer as saying, “We’ve only just put them up. Why would you take them down and the other ones aren’t ready to go up? There were no reasons, but at the end of the day we know what’s going on in the news.”
All of which could be leading many people with a significant financial stake in Woods to wonder: just what the heck is going on behind the doors at Tiger Woods Inc.?
It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between digging into the details of Tiger’s private life and questioning the details of his financial and sponsorship arrangements. While polls indicate that most Americans believe Woods deserves privacy to work out his family problems, he’s also a corporation unto himself, with dozens if not hundreds of people whose livelihoods depend on Woods and his image. So the travails of Tiger Woods Inc. are very much worthy of scrutiny.
Gerald Posner over at the Daily Beast has taken a close look at how Tiger’s management team is handling the crisis, and specifically how Steinberg is trying to preserve Woods’ long-term sponsorship viability. “Specifically,” Posner writes, “sources at two of Woods’s corporate sponsors told The Daily Beast that Steinberg has been working furiously to get them to issue public statements demonstrating that they ‘had full faith in Tiger and backed him completely.'” And according to Posner, while Nike is on board with the plan, Gillette and Gatorade are not, and Accenture is wavering. (IMG did not immediately respond to a Yahoo! Sports inquiry about the Daily Beast report.)
Once the dust settles on this entire affair, golf and media historians will focus on how well Team Tiger has managed the PR side of this, and much of the attention will focus on Steinberg’s role. Steinberg shies away from the spotlight and seeks to avoid controversy at all costs — but sometimes, controversy just can’t be avoided.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal documented how Steinberg tenaciously guards Woods’ privacy and maintains his image through carefully selected sponsorship partners and tightly choreographed events. A sample: after a tournament in Germany, Steinberg laid down the following ground rules for reporters: “Tiger will give three interviews,” he said. “You have two questions each. Nobody asks a third question or he walks.” Steinberg also once cut off CBS reporter Peter Kostis’s access to Tiger after Kostis critiqued Woods’ swing.
The threat of a loss of access is an effective means of keeping the golf press in line, but it does absolutely no good against the voracious gossip media; if Woods declines to speak to them, they can simply spin it as evidence that he’s hiding something. As a result, the general consensus is that Team Tiger, who’s been playing by the wrong rules, has been outflanked at every turn.
But Steinberg and others are presumably thinking in years, not 24-hour news cycles, hoping to preserve Tiger’s long-term viability by keeping his major sponsors on board. It’s not like Tiger’s going to starve any time soon; for every sponsor that would drop Tiger, another ten would be lining up to sign him. Forbes has done a fine job of breaking down the specifics of Woods’ business empire; for instance, while he’s earned more than a billion dollars, he’s got an estimated net worth of “only” $500 million. He earns $35 million a year from Nike alone, he now commands a $3 million appearance fee for international tournaments, and he also enjoys lucrative side opportunities like golf course design. So, yes, he’ll still be able to pay the rent.
However, all of his existing endorsement deals were built on the shoulders of his squeaky-clean public persona. While it may be impossible for Tiger to return to his old image, creating a new mystique for him will be that much easier if he’s still got the backing of the world’s biggest brands.
To get that support, however, Tiger now must work from an unfamiliar position: weakness. He and his team have zero experience negotiating while at the mercy of others, but if they’re going to get Tiger’s image cleaned up anytime soon, they need to learn how, and fast.