NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The angst Tiger Woods displayed in the wake of his pratfall last weekend at the Bridgestone Invitational may be nothing compared to the unease sweeping over network executives, advertisers and the handful of sponsors who have stuck with the fallen golf champ.
While ad buyers locked in months ago for this weekend’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., his struggles have produced a string of ratings bogeys and put the long-term confidence of marketers and both sides of the advertising fairway into the rough.
How bad has it gotten for Woods? The primary lure for viewers could be the “train wreck” factor.
“Woods is one of the few human brands,” said brand and engagement expert Robert Passikoff, who said the struggles of the nation’s most well-known -- albeit severely tarnished -- sports icon could lift America’s penchant for schadenfreude to new heights. Viewers could tune in, he said, “just to see him suffer.”
That would be fine with the golf-carrying networks, such as CBS, which has the PGA this weekend, and others, which have seen viewership for overall Sunday final rounds at major tournaments tumble 6% season-to-date. That was driven by a much-weaker British Open (down to 2.97 million from 5.55 million) on ESPN, according to Nielsen. (TNT has the first two rounds of the PGA on Thursday and Friday.)
With Woods licking his wounds and sitting out the first quarter this year, golf programing on network TV fetched $117 million -- down from $125.2 million in the same period of 2009 -- according to data from research firm Kantar Media. As for cable’s Golf Channel, SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine said he expects ad revenue could end up as much as 20% down this year from last year’s $140 million thanks to Woods’ woes.
Those numbers haven’t deterred this weekend’s TV advertisers, which include ING, Mercedes-Benz, Northwestern Mutual, RBC and Viagra. The impact, however, might not be felt for some time.
Said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media: “I think most decisions that advertisers will make about golf and Tiger Woods won’t be made until after this season is over.”
Golf’s sanctioning body, the PGA Tour, is loathe to discuss the problems of Woods, particularly on the eve of one of its sport’s showcase tourneys, but it clearly has faced challenges since reports of Woods’ serial infidelity came to light in November.
The Tour must rebuild relationships after losing sponsors for several tournaments this year, including Verizon, which was the title sponsor of the annual most-Masters event in Hilton Head, S.C., or UBS, which decided not to renew its role as sponsor on the Players Championship.
“The going rate had been $8 million to $10 million per year for usually a minimum of three years,” said Patrick Rishe, director of Sportsimpacts and a sports business professor at Webster University. “But that likely will continue to fall in light of the aftershocks of the recession and the declining golf ratings, which are partly attributable to Tiger’s diminished play.”
As of this spring, about a quarter of the PGA tournaments in 2011 were lacking title sponsors, and some say the organization will have a hard time signing up enough new sponsors, especially for second-tier events -- at least at previous prices.
“Generally, ratings have gone down since last fall when Tiger’s troubles began, and that has spin-off effects on sponsors,” Rishe said. “Companies are looking for the highest rate of return possible, especially following the recession and financial crisis. Usually sponsors don’t drop out in the middle of a three-year deal, but at the end of it they will think hard. Others may want to step in, but only if sponsorship rates fall.”
The long-term effect of a declawed Tiger, however, could be even more significant.
CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus said this week that CBS “can’t control the form of players but always hopes for interesting story lines and tournaments that get decided on the final hole.”
He also expressed some disappointment that CBS has two more years before its current PGA contract expires given that its value may be hurt. “We must monitor it closely and factor it in” when contract renewal talks start, he said about Woods’ flame-out. “The value (of the PGA) has been inflated in recent years because of Tiger.”
Woods’ off-the-course travails cost him sponsorships with AT&T and Accenture early on, and Procter & Gamble’s Gillette also de-emphasized him in its marketing this year. P&G CEO Bob McDonald later said that the company did not need the “distraction” of using Woods in its campaigns. Others could begin to feel the same way.
“The decision of those advertisers and sponsors not to stick with him was based on a fear of retribution by consumers who were morally offended,” brand expert Passikoff said. “There may be others who may consider (similar moves) now that he’s not playing very well. Athletics was what his value was based on, and people are more likely to forgive athletes who excel.”
Meanwhile, Nike and video game firm Electronics Arts are two major brands that have stuck with Woods, the latter even though market research firm NPD has said that EA’s “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11” didn’t even make it into the top 10 list of best-sellers in June.
“Tiger remains one of the greatest athletes in history, and as a long-standing partner, he will continue as the face of our award-winning golf franchise,” an EA spokesman told THR.