By: David Dusek
Surely this is not what the marketing minds at Bridgestone and TaylorMade had in mind.
Tiger Woods has not played a competitive round of golf since he shot an opening 77 then withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic on Feb. 3. He announced Thursday that he underwent a fourth surgery on his back and that the recovery is expected to take six months, and the 14-time major winner could be away from professional golf for an even longer period.
Bridgestone announced in December that Woods signed an endorsement deal with the Japanese company and that he would use a B330-S ball. It was the biggest move in Bridgestone’s history from a marketing standpoint, and it immediately drove traffic to the company’s website. It put Bridgestone balls into consideration for more golfers.
On the opening day of January’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, TaylorMade announced Woods signed an endorsement deal to play the company’s woods and irons. Surrounded by nearly every other golf brand inside the Orange County Convention Center, it was a bold statement from a company that has been the subject of rumors and speculation since it was put up for sale by Adidas nearly a year ago.
.@TaylorMadeGolf has signed Tiger Woods. #Golfweek #PGAShow pic.twitter.com/8LNJDzsEnY
— David Dusek (@Golfweek_Dusek) January 25, 2017
Bridgestone and TaylorMade won’t release monetary details of the signings, but it’s safe to assume there are at least seven figures at stake for each company. Woods doesn’t lead Forbes’ all-time list of best-paid athletes by doing things on the cheap.
The benefits of each signing, of course, is that Woods creates buzz. But that initial excitement is certainly gone now. Tiger has played 54 holes of professional golf in 2017 and might not play another. That leads to questions about the return Bridgestone and TaylorMade will get on their investment in Woods.
Typically, endorsement contracts run three or four years and pay a PGA Tour player a base sum to use a company’s equipment in exchange for the right to use his name and likeness in advertising. After that, incentives written into most deals pay a bonus for things that bring more visibility, like a top-five finish in a major, winning an event or finishing the year in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Elite players such as Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and a few others tend to sign more-customized, longer-term deals. The players get more money and long-term security, while the companies have time to forge stronger bonds between their brand and the player in the eyes of consumers.
Aside from in-store displays and advertisements, the only visibility Tiger Woods has generated since withdrawing in Dubai has been for his course design business. Other stories have focused on his absence and speculated on when and where he might return, and even those should dissipate for a while.
Pros nearly always must make a minimum number of starts to earn the full base value of an endorsement deal – typically 20 or 22 events. It is realistic to think Woods negotiated a lower minimum because even when he was healthy in his prime he did not play a lot. From 2001 through 2013 he averaged 15.76 PGA Tour starts (19.76 worldwide), and after his 2008 knee surgery, he averaged just 14.6 PGA Tour starts (18.6 worldwide) in the full seasons in which he competed.
When asked if Tiger has a minimum number of events he must play to fulfill the terms of his contract with Bridgestone, Corey Consuegra, Bridgestone’s senior director of marketing, said, “I would rather not talk about the terms of the deal, but what I can confirm is that it is a multi-year deal.”
Several people who are well-versed in endorsements deals echoed an interesting concept last week: They no longer see Woods as a golfer. He is now a brand.
“Tiger Woods was a golfer until his car hit that fire hydrant,” said one industry insider who did not wish to be identified. “He was a golfer again in 2012 and 2013 when he won some tournaments, but in the last two or three years since then, I think Tiger Woods has become a brand again.”
From that perspective, investing in a relationship with Woods means a company wants to align itself with what Woods represents, not what he may do on the course. Companies are buying a link to a player who won 79 PGA Tour events and 14 majors, not necessarily a player who could win again.
“Going all the way back to September when we chose to try to sign him, we knew there was a risk that he may not be on the course,” Consuegra said. “We studied, very closely, to determine how he affects our brand. At that point he had been off the course for 15 months. The data was extremely compelling as to why he should be a part of our brand. Even when he is off the golf course.”
But the longer Woods is on the sidelines, the longer it takes consumers to associate Tiger Woods with Bridgestone, TaylorMade or any other company with which he starts a relationship.
The reason for that was made evident last week in the video clips of Woods a hitting a wedge shot during a course-opening ceremony at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri – the day before he had surgery. It was impossible to tell if he swung a TaylorMade wedge or hit a Bridgestone ball, but the Nike swooshes on his shoes and green shirt were easy to spot.
To most fans, Tiger is still a Nike guy. It makes no difference that Nike stopped making golf clubs and balls last year and focused on clothing and shoes. Other companies must overcome that perception and engrain new relationships between Woods and their brand in the mind of consumers.
“Other brands may be thinking right now that they dodged a bullet,” said another industry veteran who spoke under the condition of not being identified. “How many marketing dollars do you spend now to make people think about him as your player? And he’s not playing to back it up!”
Consuegra said that while Tiger is not on the course, Bridgestone will adjust how it plans to market their relationship.
“We now intend to use him more from a content and access standpoint,” he said. “I really don’t want to speak to how this may or may not be altered based on the amount of rounds (Woods plays) or the amount of competitive play. But for us, I’ll reiterate that it is not crucial that he is on the golf course. From a Bridgestone Golf perspective, it is crucial that he continues to endorse what we believe is the best balls in the industry.”
So instead of thinking about how a brand gets a positive return on an investment in Woods if he does not play competitive golf, perhaps the better question would be how does a company make fans and consumers associate the company with the future Hall of Famer if he is not playing?
The answer to that would seem to be three things: money, time and patience. Probably lots of all three.