The froth of rumor and innuendo that has swallowed Tiger Woods's public identity could be nearing proportions that force his sponsors to reevaluate his value to them.
Gatorade will drop Tiger Focus, its drink linked with Woods, it announced Tuesday. But the decision was made before allegations of infidelity surfaced last month, and an industry publication reported the move before Woods's now-infamous car crash.
Still, it raises the specter of what Woods might face. With little prospect of the media's appetite for the story fading, pressure is building on Woods to offer a fuller accounting of his failures to blunt the salacious allegations now appearing almost hourly.
"What sponsors don't want to happen is what is happening now," says William Chipps of the IEG Sponsorship Report, a biweekly publication that provides analysis for sponsors. "He's letting the story spiral out of control. That's a roller coaster that his sponsors don't want to go on."
Just in the past 24 hours, that downward spiral has included his visiting mother-in-law being rushed to the hospital, reports of alleged prescription-drug abuse, and links to enough mistresses to field an entire baseball team.
All the while, Woods has said precious little – two posts on his website that made only oblique references to past "transgressions" and battered the media for nosing into this personal life.
His personal life may be his own, but his public persona is not, and Woods has allowed the public's perception of him – once bordering on reverential – to sink into the most sordid realms of rumor.
In days past, when he was known only as a golfer of incomparable skill, Woods was celebrated for his ability to manage a golf course. Whether in the midst of the fairway 80 yards from the pin or knee-high in a Scottish heath, his decisionmaking was uncanny – almost always the right club, the right line, the right tactic.
The past week has shown virtually none of this same mastery off the golf course.
Only Tiger Woods and his team of agents and lawyers know the depth of the issue – and what public response is advisable or even possible. But Mr. Chipps thinks he must do something.
"He needs to get in front of this and be an active participant in the story instead of being a bystander," Chipps says.
Sponsors will be predisposed to stand with him. For the most part, Accenture consulting and Tag Heuer watches and the rest have aligned with him because he is possibly the best golfer in the history of the sport, not because of any personal image.
"That has been to his benefit of late," says Chipps.
Moreover, these companies have invested millions of dollars in Woods and presumably have long-term contracts with him. At the very least, they will want to know the facts of the case before making what would be a momentous marketing decision.
But in the current economic climate, Woods might find that his sponsors give him a short leash. "The patience level in this economy is very short," Mr. Bevilaqua says.
More broadly, Woods's story shows the dangers inherent in building a brand on an athlete. "I've seen athletes show up at an event on behalf of a sponsor so drunk that they couldn't even talk," Bevilaqua says.
For now, Woods is getting the benefit of the doubt because he was seen as "everything that was right" about sports and marketing. But if the narrative of his story continues to slip further away from his control, executives will have difficult decisions before them.
"As his rap sheet begins to build, there will be pressure on the executives to walk away from the relationship," Bevilaqua says.
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