By Barry Janoff
January 5, 2010: Unlike AT&T, which last week said it would sever sponsorship ties with Tiger Woods, and a similar move by Accenture in December, EA Sports showed it would continue its relationship with the pro golfer by unveiling to the public Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. The game, which had been in beta test for most of 2009, is an advanced Internet version of EA Sports' popular Tiger Woods videogame series, the most recent of which, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10, was released in June.
According to a statement from Peter Moore, president of EA Sports, "For the past month, we have watched the Tiger Woods story play itself out while several of his sponsors have stepped away from the golfer. At EA Sports, we’ve been particularly attentive because for the past year, we have been in full development of a new and highly innovative, online golf game. The game has been in closed beta for eight months, with more than 75,000 people playing and participating."
EA Sports has been aligned with Woods since 1997. Other marketing partners that have been supportive of Woods since his accident this past November and subsequent admission of marital infidelity with numerous women include Nike, Gatorade and Upper Deck. Gillette and Tag Heuer said they would curtail advertising featuring Woods during his self-imposed exile from the PGA Tour but would not cut ties. AT&T and Accenture said they no longer would continue to partner with Woods.
In his statement, Moore conceded that EA Sports' decision would "no doubt create some attention and further speculation about Tiger Woods, and about his relationship with sponsors. With that in mind, I want to shed some light on why EA Sports has decided to continue with Tiger on the masthead of this game. Our relationship with Tiger has always been rooted in golf," Moore continued. "We didn’t form a relationship with him so that he could act as an arm’s length endorser. Far from it. We chose to partner with Tiger in 1997 because we saw him as the world’s best, most talented and exciting golfer. We struck that partnership with the assumption that he would remain near or at the top of his sport for years to come."
Moore labeled Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online as a "breakthrough experience," claiming that "golfers will love the authentic feel of the course and gamers will be struck by the detail and smooth flow of the browser based experience. We have spent considerable time developing and testing this game; we’re proud of it; and we are releasing it in open beta later this month."
At the EA Sports Web site, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online has the following description: "Want to test your skills on the cliffs at Pebble Beach, or the infamous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass? With Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, you can take on the world's most challenging and legendary courses. And with the Course Mastery feature, you can tackle each course with a series of increasingly challenging objectives. Score multiple birdies, complete a 300+ yard drive and sink record-breaking putts to earn the title of Course Champion. Every course provides its own set of challenges, and the more courses you master, the more bragging rights you'll earn!"
Given the history of athletes, celebrities and politicians whose reputations have been tarnished but who subsequently returned to the spotlight, it would seem bad business to cut ties with Woods when what could be the biggest event of 2010 - and eventual return to the marketing mainstream - all but certainly lie ahead. At the height of his marketing prowess, Woods was earning about $100 million in endorsements before General Motors ended their alliance in 2008 due to the automaker's economic situation. In 2009, Woods was expected to earn about $90 million in endorsements, about double that of fellow golfer Phil Mickelson, who is second among all athletes with about $47 million in annual endorsements. Even if Woods drops down to $40-50 million a year, that still puts him far ahead of such marketing stars as LeBron James ($28 million), Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($22 million), Jeff Gordon ($15 million), Kobe Bryant ($15 million), Peyton Manning ($13 million), Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard ($12 million each).
NBA star Kobe Bryant, for example, was charged in 2003 with sexual assault, and lost most of his $35 million in endorsement deals before the case was settled out of court. Bryant is once again regarded as an NBA and Madison Avenue all-star. Charlie Sheen was arrested on charges relating to domestic violence on Dec. 25, and not only did Hanes continue to air commercials with Sheen and Michael Jordan but Sheen's CBS comedy, Two and a Half Men, was the fifth highest-rated program for the week ending Dec. 27
The fact that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and former MLB all-star Darryl Strawberry are among the participants in the 2010 edition of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice also bodes well for the eventual return of Tiger Woods. Blagojevich was impeached in January 2009 in a move related to an FBI investigation regarding corruption, fraud and mail conspiracy. And Strawberry, an eight-time all-star seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame, suffered a fall from grace due to drug-related and other personal problems before regaining his footing and public admiration.
The series returns in March after NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in February. In a statement, Trump said, "This season of 'Celebrity Apprentice' is going to be fantastic. The list of celebrities we have this season is outstanding and the show will really resonate with our core viewers and fans. I expect this season of Celebrity Apprentice to be the best one yet."
Woods' situation is certain to leave permanent scars on his formerly pristine public persona. Still, without downplaying the seriousness of infidelity, Woods' return to the public spotlight at a still to be determined PGA Tour event has the potential to attract a huge global audience. When that happens, will anyone notice that Accenture and AT&T are not there?
As EA Sports' Moore put it, "By his own admission, [Woods] made some mistakes off the course. But regardless of what’s happening in his personal life, and regardless of his decision to take a personal leave from the sport, Tiger Woods is still one of the greatest athletes in history. At EA Sports, we make authentic sports simulations. When we say 'It’s in the Game,' it is not just a tagline but a statement about the quality and authenticity of the game experience. Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online is truly representative of that rallying cry, and a game that all of us at EA Sports are proud to be delivering this month to sports fans around the globe."