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Not All Sponsors Bailing On Tiger

January 12, 2010

By Ray Schulte,

Despite corporate giants Accenture and AT&T severing ties with Tiger Woods based on his admitted infidelity to wife Elin Nordegren, other prominent companies, such as Upper Deck, EA Sports and Nike, have announced continued support for the world's No. 1 golfer.

(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)

The Upper Deck Company signed Woods to an exclusive spokesperson/signature agreement in 2001. Upper Deck, a longtime manufacturer of sports trading cards, and Upper Deck Authenticated, its memorabilia and collectibles division, announced in December that both entities would continue their industry-exclusive relationships with Woods.

“Upper Deck will maintain its exclusive agreement with Tiger in both our sports cards and memorabilia categories, and we look forward to his eventual return to the PGA Tour,” Upper Deck chief executive Richard McWilliam said. “Tiger and his family have our full support.”

Since 2001, Woods and Upper Deck have brought golf trading-card collecting and golf memorabilia sales to new heights.

Now that his scandal has become an international media frenzy, many collectors and golf fans wonder what the future will hold for Woods. How will the scandal impact his All-American image long-term, both on and off the course? Will his autographed memorabilia and licensed products take a significant negative hit?

At this point, it's too soon to know.

Woods' decision to take an “indefinite leave of absence” from the PGA Tour has been perceived as the right move in this time of personal and professional crisis. However, nobody knows when Woods will play again and if he will be the dominant player he has been in the past.

The consensus among collectors is that regardless of his off-the-course "indiscretions," Woods will return to the PGA Tour and win majors. No PGA player has won more majors as a professional than Jack Nicklaus, who has 18. Woods, still just 34 years old, has been closing in on the Golden Bear since his victory at the 1997 Masters. With 14 majors, Woods has a legitimate shot to surpass Nicklaus, practically guaranteeing him the designation of greatest player ever to play the game.

Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight said in Sports Business Journal, “When his career is over, you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now.”

It is apparent companies directly involved with the golf industry, such as Nike, Upper Deck and EA Sports, will continue to support Woods because he has such an impact on their sales. But companies looking for corporate branding opportunities, such as Accenture, AT&T and Proctor & Gamble, are considering alternative creative strategies.

Despite the crushing blow Woods is taking in public opinion polls, EA Sports announced Jan. 5 it will release its new PGA Tour online game with Woods prominently displayed on the front cover.

“Our relationship with Tiger has always been rooted in golf,” EA Sports president Peter Moore said. "We chose to partner with Tiger in 1997 because we saw him as the world’s best, most talented and exciting golfer.”

Terry Melia, the longtime public relations manager for Upper Deck, would not comment on the terms of Woods' agreement but said, “As of today, we are still maintaining our existing, exclusive contract with Tiger Woods. Nothing has changed.”

The brand damage Woods has inflicted on himself, the PGA and his corporate partners is still being assessed. It may not be fully understood for some time.

Maybe Knight is right. Five to 10 years down the road, maybe nobody will care about Woods’ indiscretions, and fans will root for him to surpass Nicklaus' mark for major tournament victories. That's what golf collectors and fans were counting on when they purchased the Woods memorabilia, Nike equipment and/or EA Sports games.

Issue 145: January 2010