Time does a number on all of us, but perhaps no one gets chewed up by the temporal gears and cogs quite like the professional athlete. Swagger gives way to a certain shuffling reserve; a "good walk spoiled" devolves into a languid excursion in a golf cart.
To that end, sponsors looking to align themselves with the vigor of the world-class jock are locking the sports world's more bankable stars into long-term deals. In January, Under Armour reupped with squeaky-clean 21-year-old golfer Jordan Spieth in a 10-year pact that will keep the affable Texan clad in its apparel through what promises to be the most productive (and therefore visible) portion of his career. Mr. Spieth made a near-immediate return on the investment, securing his second PGA Tour win last month at the Valspar Championship in Florida.
Mr. Spieth is most everything a sponsor could want in a walking billboard. Like a supporting character in a CW show about a group of polite, but dedicated, teen detectives, Mr. Spieth is all shiny and fresh off the shelf. He's also lethally competitive -- in December, he beat Tiger Woods at his own charity tournament by a margin of 26 strokes -- and many duffers expect him to make another run at the green jacket during this weekend's 79th Masters Tournament.
Mr. Woods' best days are clearly behind him, however. Setting aside his lurid fall from grace, injuries have eroded Mr. Woods' game to the point where he's had to acknowledge that he's simply not up to PGA Tour standards. But when other sponsors sloughed off the troubled champ like a snake shedding its skin, Nike stayed the course. Sure, much of that loyalty has to do with economics -- it has been estimated that between 2001 and 2010 Nike recouped nearly 60% of its investment in the golfer in ball sales alone.
But Nike's unwavering devotion to the aging pro is also a testament to how outsized Mr. Woods' influence has been on his sport and the culture at large. It's impossible to oversell how insanely great the man was at his prime, and while he now seems to spend more time swearing at his clubs, golf just isn't as enthralling if he's not teeing off in his red-and-black Sunday best. (It's no coincidence that Mr. Woods was a no-show for the lowest-rated Masters since 1957.)
Should Mr. Spieth square off against Mr. Woods in a playoff this Sunday, the golf world will have its Beatles-walking-on-the-moon-with-Hawkeye-Pierce moment -- the obliging phenom, draped head to toe in an upstart brand, lines up his tee shot as the battered old champ, in the inevitable swoosh, looks on. Quiet, please.