February 19, 2010: Marketing partners that have been loyal to Tiger Woods during the time he has spent dealing with his personal problems continued to stand by him, even as fans, analysts and fellow golfers reacted to his first public appearance in three months.
Woods, who spoke for about 14 minutes on Feb. 19, drew the support of EA Sports, Nike, PepsiCo's Gatorade, P&G's Gillette and even Accenture, a company that severed ties with Woods after his private liaisons became public.
Among his statements, which included apologies to his wife, kids, mother (who was in attendance) and the charitable foundations with which he works, Woods said he planned to return to golf but did not give a timetable except to say he would not rule out returning in 2010. (Full transcript is here.) Woods and his representatives imposed severe restrictions on media coverage, with only three invited members of the press in the room - AP, Reuters and Bloomberg. The Golf Writers Assn. of America was invited but declined to participate due to the restrictions imposed by the Woods camp. Two cameras offered pool coverage.
Despite that, Woods' appearance was carried live on numerous networks, including NBC, CBS, ABC and ESPN; and via such Internet destinations as Hulu and PGATour.com. The tremendous interest in Woods by media and fans will certainly be repeated when he does return to the PGA Tour. Although some analysts say Woods might not play until later in 2010 or not until 2011, others indicate that even with a return to a rehabilitation facility, his return could come at the Transitions Championship March 18-21 (on Golf Channel and NBC), which is being played in Woods' back yard of Palm Harbor, Fla.; and then continue at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard March 25-28 (also on Golf Channel and NBC) in Orlando. That would give him time to get his golf form in shape for The Masters, April 8-11 (ESPN, CBS) in Augusta.
Although Woods is not expected to pick up new endorsement deals in the near future, he won't lose any others, at least based on consumer sentiment. According to a recent report from marketing and research firm NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, 89% of the 44,000 people who responded to a survey taken between Dec. 16-Jan. 5 said they would not cut back on products endorsed by Woods.
Golf ratings on TV have been down by about 50% without Woods, as they were in 2008 when he took time off to recover from knee surgery, according to TV analysts. When numbers for Woods' TV appearance are crunched, analysts expect they likely will be among the highest of the week. According to PGATour.com, about 300 people had registered as media at the Sawgrass Marriott conference center about a mile away to watch on TV and about 25 satellite trucks were parked outside.
“It was good to see Tiger address the public today, and we’re supportive of his focus toward family and rebuilding his life," Peter Moore, President of EA Sports, said in a statement following Woods' appearance at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., which also is home to PGA Tour headquarters. "He remains one of the greatest athletes in history, and as a long-standing partner, we look forward to seeing Tiger back on the golf course when the time is right for him and his family.”
EA Sports has been the only company to release a new Tiger Woods' product, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, since his accident on Thanksgiving Day led to Woods' fall from the personal and marketing pedestal he has been on since turning pro in 1996. Accenture and AT&T cut ties with Woods while Nike, Gillette and Tag Heuer were among the companies to remove him from marketing projects and to also hold off on new activations. Other marketing partners include NetJets and TLC Vision.
Woods earned about $100 million from endorsements in 2008, but that dropped to about $90 million in 2009 when General Motors ended its relationship with him, a move based on the auto manufacturer's economic challenges. In 2010, without Accenture and AT&T, Woods could still earn about more than $70 million from his endorsement deals.
"Many of you have inquired if our relationship with Tiger will change," said Moore. "Our official response: Our strong relationship with Tiger, for more than a decade, remains unchanged.”
Nike mirrored EA Sports in its own statement: "Our position [regarding Tiger Woods] remains the same," Beth Gast, global public relations manager for Nike, wrote in an e-mail to NYSportsJournalism. "Nike fully supports Tiger and his family through this difficult time. We respect his privacy. We look forward to him returning to golf."
According to a statement from Gatorade, "We wish Tiger well as he works through these private matters." And from Gillette, "Tiger spoke today and addressed the issues he felt were most important. His words stand on their own. We wish him and his family the best."
Tag Heuer issued this statement from Jean-Christophe Babin, president and CEO: "We are encouraged by Tiger's remarks and are looking forward to his returning to professional golf."
Even Accenture, which cut ties with Woods after his private liaisons became public, and whose WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at Mariana, Az., was engulfed by the Woods' event in Florida, defused allegations that the timing of Woods' public appearance was meant as a derogatory swipe at the company that dumped him.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the tournament. I think Tiger's got his reasons why he wants the announcement on Friday," Fred Hawrysh, head of corporate communications for Accenture, told reporters the day before Woods spoke. "If they really wanted to interfere with our tournament - which honestly I think is the last thing on their minds - then they would have run it during the tournament. They wouldn't have scheduled it for three hours before play. I think it's more coincidental. I don't think it's deliberate."
Hawrysh added that Woods' representatives had contacted Accenture when the appearance was being coordinated with the PGA Tour. "Tiger's agent [Mark Steinberg of IMG] contacted us [Wednesday] and explained that Tiger wanted to make an announcement and they were planning to do it Friday. They made it clear they were scheduling for 11 AM Eastern and it's live so it wouldn't conflict with what's happening out here. They took the extra step to make sure that it wasn't conflicting with the match going on, the television coverage."
Ultimately, the event, even under such controlled conditions, was seen as a step forward for Woods on a personal, if not professional, level. "Tiger will always have media pressure," said David Schwab, vp-managing director of First Call, the celebrity-marketing consultantcy division of Octagon, McLean, Va. "But a statement in a controlled environment [allowed] him to be contrite and begin to make the media circus slow down."