For Woods, winning is key to salvaging image

It’s difficult, even now, to fully grasp the battering Tiger Woods’ image has taken, considering the months of paparazzi probing and late-night jokes at his expense.

But here’s a thought that could be just as challenging to comprehend: Woods and his public appeal may bounce back faster than anyone expected.

Already, his absence from the game has created such a vacuum that his return to competition at Augusta National likely will make this year’s Masters one of sports’ biggest spectacles ever. And so mesmerizing is Woods’ ability to dominate the game, that if he starts winning again, some sponsors won’t be shy to align with him again. Keep in mind, too, that a great number of fans yearn for a simpler time when they could judge their sports heroes solely for their on-course performances – and not fret about their off-course antics. As for TMZ, well, America has had enough.

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Tiger Woods at the 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

These factors bode well for Woods, and other circumstantial evidence makes a case for his resiliency. A recent article in Crain’s New York Business.com cites marketing research indicating the brands that stood by Woods are doing fine. In fact, a greater number of “respondents said they have a more favorable opinion of brands (including Woods’ sponsors such as Gillette, Nike and Electronic Arts) in the past three months than those saying they have a less favorable opinion of those brands.”

The one notable exception was Accenture, which before dropping Woods, used him as the centerpiece of its advertising and to personify corporate integrity and excellence. According to the Crain’s article, “Some 11 percent said they had a less favorable opinion of that brand in the last three months vs. 5 percent who said they were more favorable toward the brand prior to that time frame.”

Clearly, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, for Woods to be as versatile a pitchman as he once was. But marketers who strictly want to associate with his golf skills or winning ways likely will be back in Woods’ corner.

The question, then, is how soon? In time for his Masters’ return?

There are two schools of thought, according to Rick Burton, the David B. Falk distinguished professor of sport management at Syracuse University.

“Short of crushing the field, the most I would expect is encouragement from Nike,” he said. “I think the others that are still left will probably take it slowly. The beauty, though, of supporting Tiger now is that it is counter-intuitive. . . . Anyone that supports Tiger early has the benefit of looking like they had the capacity to forgive.”

Most sponsors, however, will be more cautious in their approach, Burton said.

“Sponsors will want to attach themselves to victorious performances,” he said. “But behind the scenes, I expect they want to know where he stands with Elin (Woods’ wife) and. . . . how he conducts himself with the worst of critics or mean-spirited fans. Their risk is determining whether he might still implode.”

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