Tiger Woods' absence from competitive golf for the rest of the PGA season, due to injury and reconstructive surgery, is expected to have an impact on TV ratings and by extension the value of tournament telecasts to advertisers. However, his absence, even for as long as six months to a year, shouldn't have much impact on the loyalty of his corporate sponsors. If anything, the value of the legend has been burnished to an even finer glow.
That's the assessment of sports marketing observers, following Woods' dramatic victory in the U.S. Open June 12-16 at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. There, he grittily fought through pain and a compelling challenge from Rocco Mediate to win in a 19-hole playoff.
Following the victory, Woods announced he would pull out of competition for the rest of the year because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, suffered months earlier.
“If you have to have your spokesman leave a sport for a short period of time, there couldn't have been a better way to do it,” said Gary Slack, senior partner at b-to-b marketing agency Slack Barshinger. “The memory of that last performance has been burned into the minds of millions.”
Slack also said the manner of Woods' hiatus will do nothing but benefit one of his highest-profile sponsors, management and technology consultancy Accenture.
“First, they do tremendous ads, and their dioramas featuring Tiger are in practically every airport in the country. But it's also just an incredible alignment between Tiger and what Accenture wants to stand for: "High Performance. Delivered,' ” Slack said, citing Accenture's tagline.
Woods has been the centerpiece of Accenture's advertising since 2003, and, as the firm puts it, he “serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses.” The variety of Accenture print, TV, online and airport poster ads featuring Woods costs the company more than $65 million a year.
Woods also has sponsorship deals with American Express Co., General Motors Corp.'s Buick brand and Nike.
“Obviously we continually monitor our sponsorships, but we have a long-term relationship with golf,” said Larry Peck, promotions manager for Buick, which has sponsored Woods for eight years. Buick also sponsors three tournaments on the PGA Tour.
Of Woods' absence for the remainder of the season and perhaps longer, Peck said, “It's just a blip on the scale of things,” noting that even while Woods isn't playing he'll be shooting commercials for the Buick Enclave SUV.
As for the PGA Tour, it, too, appears somewhat immune from a Tiger hiatus. The organization has long-term contracts with such sponsors as FedEx, Nationwide Insurance and Charles Schwab & Co., and MasterCard USA has renewed its sponsorship of the Arnold Palmer Invitational through 2012.
Steve Dennis, the PGA Tour's director-communications strategy, said the organization works to promote all its players, and with Woods out that job may actually be easier.
“We'll now see people like Anthony Kim, who won [the recent AT&T National], get some attention,” he said.
The PGA Tour's influx of money from the networks appears secure. It signed a six-year deal in 2007 with both CBS (19 tournaments) and NBC (10 tournaments), as well as a recent 15-year deal with the Golf Channel for early-round coverage. None has come back to the PGA Tour asking to renegotiate those contracts following Woods' withdrawal, Dennis said.
However, reduced TV viewership due to Woods' absence could present a big headache for those networks.
“People are going to be disappointed when he's not there, because he's the draw,” said Chris Amoroso, exec VP at Steiner Sports Marketing. “The ratings will be down.”
NBC estimates that Woods' presence in a televised golf tournament boosts viewership by 56%, and even higher when he's still in contention near the end. At this year's U.S. Open, NBC reported its highest final rating in six years of showing the event. TV viewership of the 2008 U.S. Open was exceeded in the past 20 years only by the 2001 and 2003 events, which Woods also won.
More compelling, however, is what happens to TV viewership when Woods is not in contention. In 2006, when he missed the cut of the U.S. Open and did not play the final two rounds, the tournament's Nielsen rating fell to 3.5, with a share of TVs in use at 9. Both indicators represented the tournament's lowest TV appeal since 1971. M