TIGER, INC.In seven months, he has taken the golf world by storm and made millions. Can he handle the crush of success?
Has any athlete, anywhere, anytime come this far this fast? In the space of a little more than seven months, Eldrick ''Tiger'' Woods has become a sports legend whose name is spoken in the same breath as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Pele, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan. At 21, he has turned the whitebread world of golf on its ear, captured the imaginations of millions who know nothing about the game, and positioned himself as arguably the most sought-after pitchman in America. And his first year as a pro is far from over.
Are we all getting a little hyperbolic here? Probably. But it's hard not to be infected by the phenomenon that is Tiger Woods. Certainly, his rocket trip to fame and fortune has a good deal to do with the Electronic Age. In a nanosecond or two, his blowout win at the Masters--besting his closest opponent by 12 strokes--was news all over the globe. But in a world going nuts for golf, there is more to the instant mystique than a kid with a club who can make those little white balls do anything he wants.
For one thing, he is an underdog. Maybe not to the other players on the PGA Tour. But to the world outside of golf, he is an African American/Asian American in a white man's game. He is a Generation-Y'er in what is widely thought of as an older man's sport. And he's handsome, focused, poised, thoughtful--and maybe even socially responsible. Did somebody say they were looking for a hero?
Success, however, is coming at Tiger Woods with a rush that could topple a redwood. The President is on the horn. Corporate America is begging to give him millions to sell its wares. The golf business can suddenly divide its history into B.T. (before Tiger) and A.T. (after Tiger). And his father, Earl, among others, is talking of Tiger as a bridge between races, between nations--as a bridge to God knows where. General Powell in a Nike hat.
So hot is the hype that David A. Davis of Los Angeles investment bank Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin figures that if Woods decided to sell Tiger-backed bonds, he could easily raise $100 million.
Make no mistake. Tiger is--as he is invariably described--''cool.'' But you'd expect that from someone who knows the limelight like the back nine at Augusta National. Born to Kultida ''Tida'' and Earl Woods in Cypress, Calif., in 1975, Tiger was deemed a golf prodigy before he took his first steps. The Myth now has it that Tiger was on the practice green at 18 months, though the world got its first peek at him when as a 2-year-old he putted impressively against Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas TV show. That caught the attention of Hughes Norton of International Management Group, the powerful agency and sports marketing firm that now represents Tiger. So did stories that this toddler was shooting a 48 for nine holes.
MADDING CROWD. Still, it wasn't until Tiger began his remarkable winning streak as a teenage amateur golfer--in all, he won three straight U.S. Golf Assn. Junior Titles and three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships--that Norton began seriously courting him. As a freshman at Stanford University, Tiger's star burned brighter than ever: He won the 1996 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship before signing with IMG and turning pro in August.
All that having been said, Tiger is not Houdini. Can he keep his eye on the golf ball? Build a bigger roster of Grade A endorsement deals? Satisfy the sure-to-increase demands of the PGA Tour, his handlers at International Management Group, and TV? Stave off overexposure? Survive intense scrutiny? And serve as the role model that he thinks it is his duty to be?
At IMG, the strategy put together by Norton is already under assault. For the short haul, Norton figured, Tiger should just sign a few fat multiyear contracts with top-shelf companies. Say, $40 million from Nike, $20 million from Titleist/Cobra, and stock in Planet Hollywood International, parent of the Official All Star Cafe, now worth about $7 million. But Norton's minimalist game plan is being rocked by the madding corporate crowd at the gate.
McDonald's Corp., for instance, months ago dismissed the idea of signing Tiger despite Norton's pleading that Mickey D's and his guy were made for each other. Like a lot of 21-year-olds, the kid is known to scarf down a Big Mac and a large order of salty fries several times a week. Norton says McDonald's execs worried that Nike Inc. had already ruined Tiger's image with its first edgy ads in which he said there were still golf courses in America that wouldn't let him play. But guess who Norton says was calling the Monday after the Masters to try and cut a deal? For now at least, Norton says Tiger will confine his interest in McDonald's to its menu. (McDonald's claims that it hasn't approached him.)
You'd expect that the rush and the clamor of instant stardom would be a blur in Tiger's eye and a din in his ear. But just as he became his own man on the greens--breaking away from his dad, the ex-Green Beret lieutenant colonel who taught him golf--Woods seems to be responding to the business pressures thrust upon him by taking control. He's incorporated as ETW Inc. to shield his assets, moved to Florida (where there's no income tax), and, overwhelmed by fans on commercial flights, invested in a private jet. Not bad for a guy who's filing an income tax return for the first time this year.
''This is my life,'' Tiger said in a phone interview two days after the Masters, ''and anything that involves my time, I want to have a say-so. Other people making decisions for me--if they think that's for me, then we're going to have a clash. And that's what you don't want to happen.''
On a sunny morning in Florida in early March, Tiger was sitting in a conference room at the Isleworth Country Club, not far from his three-bedroom villa--a more modest affair than the mansions of neighbors Ken Griffey Jr. and IMG's Mr. Big, Mark H. McCormack. Sipping juice and munching from the spread of fruit and pastries, he listened intently to a marketing skull session between his IMG handlers and a half-dozen creative types from Nike. Unimpressed with the yammering about the shape of his next ad campaign, he told the room: ''I'm still a kid. And I really think people forget that. I want my next spot to show me as still being a kid.''
THROWING CASH. Being a kid may be a clue to a future endorsement contract. IMG is in talks with automobile and credit-card companies, but a beverage deal might well be the logical move because it would help Tiger broaden appeal to young people. After all, golf isn't hoops--yet. ''We want him to connect with the grunges--and the grandmothers,'' says Norton.
''Coke, Gatorade, or Pepsi, you know that they are already making the calls,'' says Lon Rosen, Magic Johnson's agent and president of Los Angeles-based First Team Marketing. ''He's a natural for them. This kid is the real thing.... There are going to be people throwing all kinds of money at him. Five hundred grand here, a hundred grand there. But your public sees you for the kinds of things you endorse. You endorse second-rate products, and they start to think you're second-rate, too.''
Richard Zien, a partner in the Los Angeles firm Mendelsohn/Zien Advertising Inc., believes Tiger has a crucial quality--getting the crowd to identify with him. ''Larry Bird was just as great a basketball player as Magic Johnson,'' he says, ''but Bird got virtually no endorsements and Magic got so many because [Johnson] had the ability to reach out and grab the crowd.'' Tiger has the same thing, says Zien. ''He wants to win every time out, he wants to make his opponents fear him. The crowd feels that, they're drawn to that pure aggression.''
A beverage deal would move Tiger beyond the less-is-more endorsement strategy originally conceived by Norton, as would a watch endorsement now being wrapped up. ''I felt certain that the core contracts--that is the clothes, shoes, and hat he wears, the clubs he plays with, the golf ball he hits, the bag he carries--would bring unprecedented amounts of money for Tiger. I felt those core agreements would essentially set him up for life,'' says Norton.
The approach struck a chord with Woods and his family, who worried that loading him up with endorsement deals while he was still new to the PGA Tour might lead to burn-out. ''We agreed to set up a moratorium not to do any endorsements until he could get six months under his belt as a professional,'' Norton explains. Adds his mother, Kultida: ''We are not a greedy family. We're not the type of family to sell out our son to get a lot of money.''
''The real issue,'' says Tiger, ''is that if I'm spread too thin with a lot of endorsements, then my golf is going to suffer. That is what I don't want to happen.''
Of course, no one wants his game to suffer--least of all the golfing Establishment, which aims to ride Tiger's increasingly broad coattails right into the next century. ''Short term, [his] impact has already been great. We've seen television ratings and attendance up for tournaments where he didn't play just because of the attention he is bringing to the game,'' says PGA Tour Commissioner Timothy W. Finchem. Golf hasn't quite attained Super Bowl status yet, but Nielsen gave CBS a 14.1 rating and a 31 share for the final round of the Masters. That means roughly 14 million people saw Tiger do his thing in the most closely watched golf tournament in history.
But wait, there is an even more amazing number attributable to the buzz about Tiger: For the 25 minutes that the tournament slopped over into prime time in the East, it posted a 20.2 rating and a 39 share. CBS has no shows that rack up those kinds of numbers. Indeed, only ER has a 39 share. You can be sure that they are stats the PGA Tour will be pulling out later this year when a couple of its key tournaments come up for bidding. Fox, for one, has been desperate to get into golf since 1994, when Rupert Murdoch and Greg Norman unsuccessfully attempted to launch a golf league.
The upside for the game from the mania for young Woods certainly outweighs the drawbacks--but golf has to pet this Tiger gently. Because of his drawing power and right to choose where he plays, Woods can turn a ho-hum tournament into an overnight bonanza.
NEW PHONE SYSTEM. At the Motorola Western Open in Lamont, Ill., where Woods has said he will play in early July, Barry Cronin, director of sports marketing, says a crowd of 250,000 is expected--up from 170,000 last year. ''The phone hasn't stopped ringing since Monday morning,'' says Mary Elizabeth Griffin, a receptionist at the Western Golf Assn., which coordinates the event. ''We put in a new phone system that increased the lines from 6 to 11. People want to know if Tiger is coming. I've never seen anything like this.''
Jim L. Awtrey, CEO of PGA of America, figures that if Tiger decides to play a lot, he could show up for 18 or 20 of the 45 PGA events scheduled for this year. But he can play overseas if he gets an exemption from PGA Commish Finchem (how could he say no?), and IMG controls or has relationships with a number of foreign tournaments. Since many overseas tournaments pay appearance fees, that only increases the power of Woods and IMG.
Woods's influence on the golf equipment business promises to be equally intense. Cobra Golf founder and Vice-Chairman Thomas L. Crow predicts that the Tiger Tide will raise a lot of boats. ''All the manufacturers have an opportunity to feed off Tiger,'' he says.
Retailers probably won't do too badly either. Corinne Pinsof-Kaplan, owner of Chicago Golf & Tennis Co., says that since Apr. 9, the day before the Masters began, sales have tripled. ''There has been a tremendous impact, considering that it snowed in Chicago all last weekend,'' says Pinsof-Kaplan. ''Woods is going to help my month significantly. People have been coming in for Titleist balls and Nike shoes. It's the best Nike has done in my store.''
That sort of immediate impact raises a question in the world of ads and endorsements: Does Tiger have Nike, or does Nike have Tiger? Says adman Zien: ''The question is whether he is so closely identified with Nike that anyone will ever take him seriously as a spokesman for a car or anything else. Nike owns him.''
It certainly felt that way as Nike troops returned to Beaverton, Ore., from the taking of the Masters in Augusta, Ga. Veterans and newcomers alike--elated by their man's stunning performance--were high-fiving all across the company's rambling campus, with its statues of many of modern history's greatest athletes. That was in sharp contrast to the initial responses of some insiders last year to Nike's $40 million deal with Tiger.
Back then, some employees openly questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on a relatively unknown athlete in a sport Nike had all but ignored before. But, says Nelson Farris, a 24-year Nike veteran who is director of corporate education, CEO Philip H. Knight stuck with his gut. ''Knight saw that this kid represents the core stuff we always talk about around here. He has this unique character that transcends everything. Knight selected this kid to be a Nike guy because he saw that the pieces were there for greatness.''
The morning after the Masters, Nike was looking like the big genius in Corporate America. But as Farris so rightly points out, Knight and Nike were bullish from the beginning. Just days after signing Woods on Aug. 28, Nike took the unprecedented step of pulling some 20 TV ads it had scheduled to run during the Labor Day weekend and replacing them with spots featuring Tiger. At the time, golf-related products made up just 1% of Nike's overall revenues.
Now, Nike expects its fledgling golf biz to reach $180 million in revenues by the end of fiscal 1998. That would represent a 60% increase over fiscal '97. Next spring, Nike will launch a Tiger Woods apparel line, and shortly thereafter, a line of golf footwear. ''It may be the end of loud pants and loud shirts,'' says Sean Brenner, editor of newsletter Team Marketing Report. ''His taste in clothing might redefine what people wear on the golf course the way Michael Jordan's taste in basketball shorts influenced what basketball players wanted to wear on the courts.''
More immediately, says Rodney J. Tallman, director of marketing for Nike Golf, the company is spending $2 million on a congratulatory TV ad campaign that was expected to hit the airwaves on Apr. 16. ''On [Masters] Sunday,'' says Tallman, ''the Tiger era began in golf. His visibility right now is second to none.''
But is Tiger already too visible? ''The last thing you want to see is for IMG to run him so hard around the world that he tires his ass out,'' says Crow of Cobra. Adds Lewis Jones, deputy media director at J. Walter Thompson in New York: ''There is a lot of risk in people trying to strike while the iron is hot. If you miss it, it will never happen again. But the question is when to strike and when to wait and when to pull back. It's a complicated business, and not a lot of people know when to make those choices.''
And in this era in which the bigger your celebrity, the more your private life seems to get dissected, one agent worries that the Tiger media frenzy is certain to attract more than gentle sports writers. Already, there is talk about the children from a first marriage that Earl Woods left behind and trouble in his current marriage to Tiger's Thai-born mother. ''That's ridiculous,'' says Kultida. ''This really bugs me. White people have three or four houses, and it's O.K. for them, but when minorities do that, somehow it means we're split.'' Says Jones: ''You don't know what [young stars] are going to say once the press gets to them. He looks like he can handle it, but I am not sure that he has had as much as he is going to get.''
FRESH AIR. For now, though, the media can't stop cooing over Tiger. One reason is that to a public tired of trash-talking, spit-hurling, head-butting sports millionaires, Tiger is a breath of fresh air. ''Quite frankly,'' says Tiger, ''I think it's an honor to be a role model to one person or maybe more than that. If you are ever given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person's life in a positive light, and that's what I want to do. That's what it's all about.''
No one disputes that Tiger has awakened a lot of people who found watching a golf tournament just slightly more energizing than laying your head on a fluffy pillow. But can he really bridge the divide between African Americans and Asian Americans, between black America and white America, between the privileged and the disadvantaged?
''I think Tiger has been able to do what very few golfers have been able to do in the past--he made golf 'cool,'''observes John Morrison, director of the Los Angeles LPGA Urban Golf Program. He says the number of kids in his program has ballooned since Woods went pro.
Says David Falkner, author of Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson From Baseball to Birmingham: ''What Tiger has done is less significant than what Jackie Robinson did. Robinson was a person up against a national color barrier rather than a color barrier in one section of society. Jackie...helped to trigger the civil-rights movement. As spectacular as Tiger Woods's accomplishments are, I don't think they have the same social significance.''
Alan C. Page, a pro football Hall of Famer and since 1993 an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, believes Tiger Woods has a real contribution to make--but he may not make it tomorrow. ''We as a society like to look at the short term for long-term answers,'' says Page, who founded the Page Education Foundation, which awards grants to minority students willing to work with disadvantaged children in their communities. ''This is a very young man who has a lot to contribute and will face a lot of challenges along the way. That's what life is about. Hopefully, he will grow and mature in ways that make what we see today even better.''
Rick Bradley, who heads William Morris Agency Inc.'s sport unit, isn't so sure that Tiger will have a major impact on black America: ''He translates to the MTV generation a lot more than he does to the inner city.''
The fact is, with so much pressure on his young shoulders, Tiger may soon find that he can't be all things to all people and still stay focused on golf. Lon Rosen, Magic Johnson's agent, says that recently Tiger came to visit Magic on the set of a photo shoot. Rosen says Magic sat down with Tiger and told him: ''There's going to be a lot of people who are pulling at you. You just have to be yourself--not who they want you to be.'' Even for a Tiger, that's going to be tough.
By Ron Stodghill II in Cleveland, Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, Gail DeGeorge in Miami, Linda Himelstein in San Francisco, Richard A. Melcher and A.T. Palmer in Chicago, and Mark Hyman in Baltimore
Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.