Toronto, Canada – By Ben Klayman
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Even the prospect of a golf landscape temporarily minus Tiger Woods is not one PGA Tour officials, advertisers and sponsors care to ponder as speculation swirls around the popular athlete's private life, which has kept him secluded in his Florida home.
Yet as corporate sponsors like Gatorade and Gillette consider ways to deal with recent negative coverage of the world's No. 1 golfer, some media companies are seeing an upside.
Woods' absence since a minor car accident last month sparked tabloid reports of marital infidelity has prompted flashbacks to the eight months from last year to early this year when Woods was absent from golf courses and recovering from knee surgery.
In that time, TV ratings for golf tournaments tracked by Nielsen Media slumped almost 50 percent, causing advertising rates to fall. Attendance on courses dropped off too.
"Tiger's presence at a golf tournament and being on the leader board generates significantly increased ratings," said Neal Pilson of consulting firm Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports. "When deals are negotiated, the fact Tiger is a member of the tour influences what networks pay."
After the accident, Woods missed a tournament in California he had hosted for the past nine years and he has not discussed when he will return to play.
The business environment was already tough for the PGA Tour as it suffered losses of corporate sponsors over the past year. While this year's numbers are not final, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has said charitable donations raised at tournaments -- a reflection of the sport's revenue -- are expected to be down from 2008's record $124 million, due to the recession.
For many fans, Woods is golf. Almost single-handedly, he has ushered in an era of multimillion-dollar endorsements and lucrative appearance money since turning professional in 1996.
His background and spotless reputation spread golf to millions of new fans, and he became among the world's most marketable athletes. Product endorsements made him, perhaps, the world's richest athlete, with assets estimated at $1 billion.
Not everything Tiger touches turns to gold.
Before the accident, Beverage Digest reported PepsiCo's Gatorade was dropping its "Tiger Focus" drink to make room for other products, quoting an unidentified executive saying the company preferred to use Woods across its entire group of products. Still, for the first 10 months of 2009, the Tiger drink's volume was down 34 percent.
SPONSORS WAIT AND SEE
For now, Gatorade and other sponsors are standing by their man, and while ads featuring Woods have disappeared recently from prime-time TV and the 19 cable networks monitored by Nielsen -- the last prime-time ad with Woods, a 30-second spot by Gillette, ran on November 29 -- that decline could be due as much to the golf season winding down as his current troubles.
Officials with Procter & Gamble's Gillette, Electronic Arts and Nike said their companies had not altered marketing plans since the accident.
Other sponsors include Accenture, Upper Deck, AT&T, TLC Vision Corp, Berkshire Hathaway's NetJets private jet unit and Tag Heuer watches.
They are now experiencing a "double-edged sword" of publicity due to their association with Woods, said Randall Beard, executive vice president with Nielsen IAG, which tracks the effectiveness of TV ads and in-program product placement.
Woods has been the butt of many jokes on late-night TV, but that has increased audience recognition of brands tied to him.
"The average recall of those brands, having been in those shows, is about 41 percent higher than average," Beard said. "On the other hand, the brand opinion shift is more negative than usual ... about double the negative impact of the usual brand that ends up in those talk shows."
But even on TV, there could be an upside to Woods' absence. The first few tournaments in which he plays can expect strong TV audiences as viewers tune in to see how Woods handles himself, Pilson said.
Already, the scandal has been welcome news for websites dispensing the latest news and speculation.
"God bless Tiger. This week, we got a huge uplift," Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz told investors on Tuesday in New York.
(Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Cooney)