With Tiger Woods 'Taking a Break' From Golf, Where Does That Leave Sponsors?

Nike, AT&T and Accenture Stick With Him -- for Now -- and Some Quietly Make Adjustments

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Tiger Woods' sponsors have largely stuck with him in the wake of a series of revelations about his prolific marital infidelity, largely on the theory that they're sponsoring the world's greatest golfer, not its nicest guy.

But what happens now that Tiger isn't playing golf?

Mr. Woods announced on his web site Friday evening that he'll be taking an "indefinite break from professional golf," noting he was "profoundly sorry" for his infidelity.

"I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person," he said.

So where does that leave his sponsors? Still by Mr. Woods' side, at least for now.

Tiger Woods 'indefinite' withdrawal from golf is leaving some marketers in a quandary.
Tiger Woods 'indefinite' withdrawal from golf is leaving some marketers in a quandary.

"Tiger has been part of Nike for more than a decade," the sports apparel giant said. "He is the best golfer in the world and one of the greatest athletes of his era. We look forward to his return to golf. He and his family have Nike's full support."

Gillette echoed that sentiment, in an email to Ad Age: "In the midst of a difficult and unfortunate situation, we respect the action Tiger is taking to restore the trust of his family, friends and fans," the statement said. "We fully support him stepping back from his professional career and taking the time he needs to do what matters most. We wish him and his family the best. As Tiger takes a break from the public eye, we will support his desire for privacy by limiting his role in our marketing programs."

'Evaluating our relationship'
Other Tiger-backed brands were less enthusiastic. AT&T said, "We support Tiger's decision and our thoughts will be with him and his family. We are presently evaluating our ongoing relationship with him."

While no marketers have outright dropped Mr. Woods, he is quickly vanishing from creative. According to Nielsen, he hasn't appeared in a TV spot since Nov. 29.

Advertisers that decide to ride out the storm with Mr. Woods may try to follow the blueprint Nike used when Kobe Bryant was accused of an alleged sexual assault on a 19-year-old hotel worker in 2003. The sneaker marketer never broke ties with Mr. Bryant, who was ultimately exonerated of any crime, but it essentially tabled him for some time.

As Mr. Bryant's on-court successes ultimately overshadowed his marital infidelity, Nike -- and other marketers -- slowly worked him back into their advertising mix. He's among the company's most prominent endorsers today.

Zeta Sponsor Survey
But Mr. Bryant's troubles never drove him from the playing field in the manner Mr. Woods' troubles now have. And there is increasing evidence that the scandal is weighing on the brands that are most associated with Mr. Woods.

A survey of internet buzz this week by Zeta Interactive found that Woods' three largest sponsors -- Gatorade, Nike and Gillette -- have all seen their online chatter increase and become more negative since the scandal broke. Consider that 84% of Gatorade's pre-scandal chatter was positive, while only 39% of it is today. Gillette fared only slightly better, with its positive chatter dropping to 64% from 85%. Nike was comparatively unaffected, declining to 68% from 70%.

That likely was not lost on another major Woods backer, Accenture, which on Friday pulled all references to the golfer from its website, including a photo of him that had been on the site's front page. (That move was first reported by Bloomberg Friday afternoon.)

One prior reference to Mr. Woods on the Accenture site read: "As perhaps the world's ultimate symbol of high performance, he serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses."

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