Saturday, November 11, 2000

Tour better keep Tiger happy

        In his ongoing spat with the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods owns the ultimate weapon: Tiger Woods.

        He is The Man, the Lord of the Links, and everyone else is an extra. The game of golf grovels before him. The stewards of golf quake at his every qualm.

        When Tiger threatens to bolt the Tour to protest a policy — or even intimates as much — PGA commissioner Tim Finchem should spring to attention like a buck private before the joint chiefs of staff. Woods is the one player whose presence assures a tournament's success and whose absence signifies an event's insignificance. He is to golf what Michael Jordan was to basketball, only more so.

        Woods and the corporations that are making him the world's wealthiest athlete are taking issue with “implied endorsements.” These are the Tour marketing deals that enable companies to capitalize on Woods' popularity even if they happen to compete with the player's personal sponsors.

        Woods is affiliated with American Express, for example, but his image also appears in connection with a prize awarded by another financial services firm. Similarly, Woods has a deal with Buick and a recurring role in a Mercedes campaign.

        As a condition of playing on the Tour, Woods surrenders certain rights. He agrees to allow his likeness to be used in tournament-related advertising. As the Tour's most prominent player, however, Woods feels exploited. Each time Woods appears in an ad for a business that is not paying him to do so, it undermines his value as a corporate pitchman, a role that earns him $54 million annually.

Jordan's way
        Jordan fought this same battle with the United States Olympic Committee in 1992, when he was required to accept his gold medal in a uniform bearing the logo of one of Nike's competitors. Jordan solved this one-time problem by draping an American flag over the trademark. For Woods, however, these conflicts can be a weekly occurrence.

        “We're just wanting to get our rights back and not having these implied endorsements,” Woods said Thursday. “There's a lot the public doesn't understand and doesn't know about.”

        We make it a policy in this space not to anguish over the inconvenience of athletes whose annual income exceeds the GNP of entire nations. Yet if Woods decides to take his clubs and go home — or, as Greg Norman once did, attempts to create a competing circuit — the PGA could be paralyzed. Finchem needs to find some middle ground, and fast, or every tour stop will seem like the Greater Hartford Open.

Special meeting
        To that end, Finchem has flown to Spain, where Woods is competing this week, and plans to meet with his industry's icon following the World Golf Championship. With a new Tour television contract up for bids in the spring, the need to appease Woods is obvious. While other major sports have experienced a steady ratings decline, televised golf is growing like a dandelion on andro.

        “People say Tiger has increased interest in the Tour tenfold,” says Fred Couples. “But it's more like 10,000-fold.”

        This makes for a lot of leverage. At 24, Woods is about to complete a year of astonishing achievement. He has won nine tournaments — the last three majors — and most of them have been about as close as Secretariat's Belmont.

        He transcends the sport. His problems, therefore, deserve priority.



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