After Tiger Woods' Mea Culpa, Now What?

Status Quo Remains the Same After 14-Minute Press Event

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Now that Tiger Woods' nationally televised mea culpa is over, the question for the sports world's greatest endorser is this: Are his sponsors willing to, pardon the pun, get back in bed with him?

Tiger Woods
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Mr. Woods on Friday made his first public appearance in almost three months, since the details of his numerous marital infidelities surfaced following a one-car accident he was involved in on Thanksgiving night. In a carefully scripted and controlled setting, Mr. Woods -- looking ashen, with his eyes welling at one point -- spoke for almost 14 minutes, publicly admitting "I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did was not acceptable and I am the only person to blame. ... I thought I could get away with anything I wanted to."

Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at branding agency Method, said the press event wasn't a hole in one but he felt Mr. Woods showed humanity, sincerity and honesty. Mr. Crutchfield said that's key for getting public sympathy on the golfer's side, which leads to people wanting him back on the course, which leads to more sponsorships.

"The appropriate sponsors are going to be bending over backwards to get a deal, it may be discounted, but they are going to be pushing backwards to get one," Mr. Crutchfield said. "Some forward-thinking brand will take advantage of that. He's back in the game and will have sponsors lining up but it's not going to be Johnson's Baby Powder."

On his personal website, tigerwoods.com, Mr. Woods lists as his official sponsors as Nike, EA Sports, Gillette Champions, Tag Heuer, Golf Digest, NetJets, Upper Deck and TLC Laser Eye Centers.

Mr. Woods was dropped completely by Accenture and AT&T. Gatorade announced in December that it was discontinuing the Gatorade Tiger Focus drink, but said that the decision had been made months earlier due to sagging sales. And Proctor & Gamble's Gillette scaled back its advertising that utilized Mr. Woods, although he continues to be associated with the company.

A P&G spokesman this morning said there was no change in Mr. Woods' sponsorship status with Gillette as a result of his news conference.

Slap at Accenture?
Accenture was the first sponsor to drop Mr. Woods after the details of his infidelities surfaced, and many felt that the golfer's decision to hold his news conference on the same day of the third round of the Accenture World Championship tournament was a vindictive slap at his former backer.

But Accenture spokesman Fred Hawrysh said Mr. Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg of Cleveland-base IMG, advised Accenture about the press conference in advance of the announcement to the media and there was no deliberate attempt to undermine the golf tournament.

The reason the event was held this morning is that Mr. Woods said he is headed back to therapy after a short break this week, and he made direct note of that in his news conference.

"Starting tomorrow, I will leave for more treatment and more therapy," Mr. Woods said. "I would like to thank my friends at Accenture and the players in the field this week for understanding why I'm making these remarks today."

But Mr. Hawrysh said Mr. Woods is not under consideration to return as an Accenture endorser.

"We ended our marketing agreement with Tiger Woods in December when he was no longer an effective vehicle to deliver our advertising messages," Mr. Hawrysh told Ad Age. "However, we continue to support golf and the Accenture Match Play Championship and we look forward to having Tiger back at next year's tournament."

Nike and EA Sports have already publicly supported the golfer. Tag Heuer, after initially saying it would drop Mr. Woods, has also kept the golfer as an endorser.

"The partnership with Tiger Woods will continue," Jean-Christophe Babin, president-CEO of Tag Heuer, said in a statement. "But we will downscale the use of his image in certain markets for a period of time, depending on his decision about returning to professional golf. We will continue to actively support the Tiger Woods Foundation."

NetJets and TLC Laser Eye Centers did not return a request for comment at press time.

Never be the same
Stephen McDaniel, professor of sports marketing at the University of Maryland, said he believes Mr. Woods will never be the same endorser again.

"I believe he was sincere and it sounds like he's doing the right things to move forward, but from an advertiser perspective, in his career as an endorser, I can't imagine this [news conference] has done anything to assuage his commercial partners in any way," Mr. McDaniel said.

Perhaps just as importantly, Mr. Woods said he did not know when he would return to the game of golf, saying "I do plan to return to golf one day. I just don't know when that day will be. I don't rule out it will be this year."

The PGA Tour can't wait.

Not only is Mr. Woods a personal endorsement machine -- $64 million in 2009 according to Forbes magazine -- but his presence on the PGA Tour is the difference between a financial birdie and a bogey to all parties involved: the Tour, TV networks and advertisers. When Mr. Woods injured his knee and missed a good portion of the 2008 and some of the 2009 golf season, TV viewership of weekly tournaments plummeted by almost 47% according to Nielsen Media.

Bad buzz
But even if companies were ready to utilize Mr. Woods in its marketing campaigns, is the public ready to accept him again? Not according to research agency Millward Brown. The company has tracked consumer attitude toward Mr. Woods since the news of his extramarital affairs surfaced, and his "positive buzz" dropped from 81 (out of 100) in September 2009 to 6 this month. His "negative buzz" went from a 2 in September 2009 to 80 this month.

"As he breaks his silence and works toward rebuilding his personal brand, it doesn't appear that he has consumers behind him. Negative buzz about Woods that spiked at the outset of the scandal has persisted at some of the highest levels we have seen despite the low profile he has tried to keep," said Graham Kerr, exec VP at Millward Brown.

Where Mr. Woods was once one of the top three celebrities on the Millward Brown chart, he is now one of three lowest-ranking celebrities in terms of being considered a role model, ahead only of Lindsay Lohan and Kanye West.

The news conference itself was not without its controversy, either. Many saw it as yet another public relations misstep by Mr. Woods and his handlers for inviting three major wire services, a pool camera and three members of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA), but not allowing any questions from the media. The GWAA declined the invitation, even after Mr. Steinberg offered to double the amount of reporters.

And the news conference didn't escape the clutches of social media, either. One of the most popular trending topics on Twitter leading up to Friday morning was "tigershouldsay," which invited comments on what Mr. Woods should have said in his remarks. The Tweets ranged from the unprintable to such gems as "I got hooooooes in different area codes", "My tiger is back in its cage" and "I'm not sorry for cheating, I'm sorry for getting caught."

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Michael Bush and Jack Neff contributed to this report.

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