Tiger Woods transgression: Can he recover his pitchman status?

After Tiger's "transgression," his economic rebound will depend on whether he follows Kobe Bryant — or Barry Bonds.

Ron Thompson/MCT
Tiger Woods streches for the camera during the filming of a Nike commercial on the quarry holes at Black Diamond in Citrus County in 1997. What does Woods need to do to keep his economic engine running after his recent public turmoil?

Tiger Woods' simple statement Wednesday began: "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart."

While Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren Woods, have been through a whirlwind few days since the golf megastar's car crash early Saturday morning, Woods's pocketbook is in for leaner times, too.

That's because when pro athletes get caught in any sort of imbroglio, their power as pitchmen plummets. Just ask Kobe.

After illicit contact with a woman other than his wife in Eagle, Colo. in 2003, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant got dropped by McDonald's, Nutella, and Spalding, among others. Michael Vick went from the NFL's highest-paid player to national outcast after his involvement in a Virginia dog-fighting ring was disclosed in 2007. And homerun king Barry Bonds went from videogame covers to hardball pariah after allegations of his steroid use came to a head during the mid-2000s.

Woods has eclipsed them all. Forbes recently dubbed him America's first billionaire athlete in 14 years as a pro. By comparison, basketball superstar Michael Jordan has earned $800 million since he came on to the professional scene in 1984, playing over a decade more than Woods has. Woods' is estimated to make $100 million a year away from the golf course. Nike and Gatorade have already said they will stand by the golfer.

Most fallen pros take one of the three routes. As Woods looks to chart his future, he could learn something from each of them.

Going, going ... gone: Barry Bonds

When Barry Bonds slugged 73 home runs in 2001, fans and players agreed: He was larger than life. The problem, as it turned out, was that his mythic proportions might be pharmacologically problematic. When allegations about the San Francisco Giants' outfielder's steroid abuse went white-hot even as Bonds was crushing Mark McGwire's home-run total, Bonds was finished as a corporate pitchman and is currently out of the sport.

Baseball's most prolific slugger swore that he never knowingly used steroids, but in the public's eye his surly demeanor and precipitous decline both in physical stature and home-run totals suggested otherwise.

Tiger is only four major victories away from tying Jack Nicklaus's record for winning major tournaments, and so he could reasonably still be in the corporate wilderness when he ties the mark. The lesson from Bonds' saga: Say you're sorry, and say it sincerely. Otherwise you'll disappear from the corporate landscape.

The long way home: Michael Vick

Vick had it all as far as endorsements go: from Nike apparel to AirTran Airways. Vick's blend of speed and swagger made him a lord of the advertising universe. That's in addition to his 10-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons.

After a dog-fighting conviction in 2007, Vick lost about $7 million per year in endorsement revenue and seven years of wages on his contract.

After nearly two years in prison, Vick is back with the Philadelphia Eagles but so radioactive that when rumors surfaced that Nike had re-signed their old front man, the organization leapt into action to say only that they gave him free gear, as they do with a number of pro athletes, but had no contractual relationship with him.

Although Vick's commercial success will be determined greatly by whether he makes it back to a starting role in the NFL, his evolving role in speaking to youth about animal rights and responsibility may chart a way back to some level of corporate potency. The lesson: For the historically reserved Woods, a little (sincere) time working for the public good can only help.

Big rebounder: Kobe Bryant

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant's tale goes from riches to less-endorsement-infused riches and then back to riches again. Quickly dropped by Coke, McDonald's, and Nutella after the incident in Eagle, Colo., Bryant has climbed the advertising heights once again. After inking a deal with VitaminWater, a Coke subsidiary, and palling around with fellow hoops god LeBron James in puppet form for Nike, Bryant is back on top of the advertising world.

What happened? Bryant kept his nose clean — and played like a man possessed. After an injury shortened 2003-2004 season, Bryant's points per game jumped to over 27, then to over 35, then ticked downward to a still lofty 31. After leading the Lakers to the NBA championship this past season, Bryant seems more saleable than ever.

The lesson? What Tiger does to a golf ball in the next two to three years could determine more than anything else his trajectory.


David Grant is a Monitor correspondent. Think Tiger will get his commercial game back on track? Think he's toast? Let us know on Twitter.

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