Tiger’s Best Strategy? Get Back on the Course—and Win

Tiger Woods is down. Way down.

His once-pristine reputation is in tatters. His marriage is in pieces. His golf career is on hold. And his sponsors, including heavyweights Accenture and Gillette, are running for the hills.

So what can Tiger do to stop the bleeding?

Simple, says Ken Shropshire: Play golf—and win.

“The key for any kind of renewal of his marketability is to play and play at high levels,” says Shropshire, the David W. Hauck Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. “There has certainly been tremendous damage done, but there’s no way that damage can be repaired if he doesn’t play. The key question, I think, is how far back he can really come.”

That’s a question that may not be answered for years, though, because the Woods story is bigger and more complicated than any in recent sports history.

Never before has the world’s premier athlete—the most popular, successful and marketable athlete in any sport—had to confront such salacious allegations at the height of his power.  So there’s no way of knowing whether or not Woods can ever regain the marketability that he once enjoyed. “We don’t have much precedent to look at,” Shropshire says.

What is clear is that, for now at least, most companies want nothing to do with him.

Gillette, which had sponsored Woods since 2007, announced last week that it would phase the golfer out of its advertising campaigns. Gatorade says it will halt production of the Woods-branded Gatorade Tiger Focus sports drink, though the company claims that decision had been made before the scandal broke. And the global consulting firm Accenture broke ties with Woods on Sunday, noting in a strongly worded  statement that the golfer was “no longer the right representative” for the company.

It’s not all bad news for Woods, though. His most important sponsor, Nike, is standing by his side.

But that’s hardly a surprise, says Shropshire.

“They almost have to [support him],” Shropshire says. “He is their brand. Moving away from him wouldn’t do them much good. … Plus, imagine how much product they have out there [with Woods’ name on it] already. Manufacturing-wise, that just can’t be stopped. For Nike, it’s a more a matter of, ‘We’re in Afghanistan; now how do we win and how do we get out?’”

Defending his company’s decision to stand by Woods, Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight told the Sports Business Journal on Monday that, “when [Woods’] career is over, you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip.”

Shropshire says that very well may be true. Which is why he believes Nike, and the other companies that maintain their association with Woods, may be making the smart play. Woods’ career could stretch on for decades, Shropshire says, so he’ll have a lot of opportunities to put this whole mess behind him.

The sponsors who stand by him, by extension, could reap the benefits.

“[Accenture] is basically saying, ‘Our partner is down, and we’re cutting him loose,’” Shropshire says. “There may be no consumer backlash on them, but there certainly could be Tiger relationship damage. This guy could end up playing on the senior tour. His career could go on forever. And redemption is very much an American story. Who knows? Maybe if he can signify that he’s cleaned up his life, and that he’s headed in the right direction, the [marketing] message can be, ‘You can do this, too—so have a Coke.’”

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