So, Tiger Woods had an affair. Actually, Tiger may have had an affair with several women, an infidelity buffet, if you will. For most men and marriages, such transgressions would signify disaster and a loss of half their estate. For Tiger Woods, who is far more than just the Average Joe and Average Athlete, a sordid affair detailed in the tabloids means the loss of half a state’s income. And that’s just in his earnings to date.
When news surfaced that Tiger was pulled from his damaged Escalade by a valiant wife armed with nothing more than a Nine Iron and her 2am wits, the situation smelled a bit odd. When the story changed to reveal “transgressions” and demands for privacy, it started to smell fishy. When the full story broke, and extravagant trysts were outlined in full Enquirer-worthy detail, Tiger’s story started to flat-out stink. But from an endorsement perspective, it was just getting fascinating.
The most successful athletes make a large portion of their income on endorsement deals. Tiger has plenty of such arrangements, and in the early going, his endorsers stood by their man. Gillette, Nike, Cadillac…none spoke aloud what millions were wondering, but board rooms were surely abuzz with the same topic: how long can we support this guy, and if we continue to do so, at what point will our brands be tarnished? Gillette spoke first, scaling back its Tiger-focused ads to subtly distance itself from the maligned golfer. Shortly thereafter, Accenture made the more aggressive move of canceling its endorsement with Tiger Woods because he no longer represented the long-term ideals the company tries to represent. Tiger’s own wife was next, reportedly seen without her wedding ring. With the dominoes clearly falling, the question begs to be asked: how long until Electronic Arts files for divorce from Tiger Woods?
EA Sports has built an entire golf-game franchise on the Tiger Woods name. The company’s PGA Tour videogames have been endorsed by Tiger since 1999 — a full decade, for those of you keeping score at home. To suddenly drop that endorsement and change the brand would, to be gentle, be a brutal task. Nobody refers to the games by their full title, instead calling them “Tiger 09” or “Tiger 10,” much as gamers call EA’s Madden NFL games “Madden.” At least EA has the PGA Tour label on which to hang its hat if they drop the Tiger Woods name, but doing so would not be an easy task. And hey, do you think EA PR really likes the idea of pitching Peter Moore — rather than Tiger Woods — giving live demonstrations on SportsCenter? Not in the least.
As difficult as EA Sports dropping Tiger Woods as a brand might be, it’s something the company has to consider. With the athlete on an indefinite leave from golf, EA has the perfect justification to bow out not for transgressions but for purely professional ones. No sport, no game endorsement, simple as that. Sure, we’d all know the real reasons for the departure, but EA could at least bail with good reason. What’s more, EA has — like every other game publisher — gravitated toward the Nintendo Wii to the point that it created an entire sub-brand of “All Play” sports games designed for the whole family (translation: to be kid friendly). Do you really suppose EA wants to present an apparent adulterer on the cover of its kid-designed games? Do you think mom and dad would consider buying a golf game for Little Jimmy that might force them to explain Tiger’s transgressions because his likeness was on the cover and inspired some pointed questions?
The point of any endorsement deal is to build credibility and sell product. But if you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and Tiger’s reported affairs could be the brand equivalent of hari kari. For one decade, EA has done quite well by Tiger, and a random dice roll may show that the company would continue to do so. But if EA is serious about expanding the All Play sub-brand, if it’s serious about reaching moms and dads looking for an electronic babysitter, the company has to be considering its options. Ten years is a good run by any stretch of the imagination, but maybe the “indefinite leave” will expand to more than just Tiger’s real-world game. That’s ultimately EA Sports’ call to make, but the clock is certainly ticking.
— Jonas Allen