Tiger Woods Returns With Sponsors' Support

Nike, Gillette, EA Sports Rally Around Beleaguered Golfer

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Tiger Woods is returning to golf, and many of his biggest backers are coming with him.

By returning to the Masters, golf's biggest stage, Tiger Woods is guaranteeing an enormously bright spotlight from the start.
By returning to the Masters, golf's biggest stage, Tiger Woods is guaranteeing an enormously bright spotlight from the start. Credit: AP
Nike, Gillette and EA Sports all expressed support for Mr. Woods' now public plan to play in April's Masters, although none except EA Sports -- which has already gone ahead and launched a Woods-themed video game for the coming year -- has indicated if or when Mr. Woods will return to a front-and-center role in their marketing messages.

"We look forward to Tiger's return to the Masters and seeing him back on the course," Nike said in a statement.

Added Gillette: "Like many sports fans around the world, we're looking forward to seeing Tiger back on the course."

Neither company addressed whether they would resume airing creative featuring Mr. Woods, who has been bumped in favor of other endorser athletes by both companies.

To recap, Mr. Woods had been the center of a slowly calming media storm after details of his numerous marital infidelities surfaced following a one-car accident he was involved in on Thanksgiving night. Last month, the golfer publicly apologized for his transgressions in a televised news conference, adding that he was taking a break from the sport. Expect that storm to once again intensify.

So if Tiger is back, and his big sponsors -- sans Accenture and AT&T -- are still with him, does that mean our long national nightmare is over?

Not quite.

Public-relations experts say that in order to fully bury the story, Mr. Woods needs to start winning again. If his performance falters, it could fuel speculation that the circus surrounding his infidelity and subsequent rehabilitation is throwing him off his game, which could give the story new energy.

"The circus is going to continue for the first couple tournaments he plays, and it won't be fully over until he wins a tournament or two," said Pete Marino, president of Chicago-based Dig Communications.

Mr. Marino notes that Mr. Woods may have given himself some "wiggle room" by choosing to return at what may be golf's most competitive tournament. "If he'd come back at a smaller tournament like Bay Hill that he wins every year, any struggles would be magnified," he said.

At the same time, however, by coming back on golf's biggest stage, Mr. Woods is guaranteeing an enormously bright spotlight from the start.

Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, predicts CBS's Sunday audience for the tournament could rival the 20 million viewers who tuned in to see Mr. Woods win the tournament as a 21-year-old in 1997. The tournament's closing day drew about 13 million viewers a year ago.

That would be a major boon for the three primary sponsors of the broadcast, which is presented with limited commercial interruptions; the three advertisers are likely to see a huge boost in their returns thanks to the attention.

The three advertisers are ExxonMobil, IBM and, ironically, AT&T, one of the two major sponsors to drop Mr. Woods since the scandal broke.

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