Over the last two months, Tiger Woods has not only returned to regular PGA Tour action, but has also brought the predictable hype that follows one of the most famous athletes of all time. But it goes well beyond mere morbid curiosity of seeing a once-dominant Woods rise from the ashes of personal scandal and chronic injury to appear on a competitive golf course again. He’s not just there, he’s challenging the leaderboard and boosting TV ratings.
At the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open in late January, third-round TV ratings were up 53% from 2017 and the highest in seven years, while the final-round ratings were up 38% and the highest in five years. But comeback fever really caught on during the Valspar Championship, where Woods finished second and the TV ratings for the final round on March 11 were the highest for a non-PGA major since 2015. And last weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, even though Woods finished fifth, NBC Sports saw a 136% jump in TV audience over last year’s tournament, and more than 12 million minutes of NBC and Golf Channel coverage were streamed, a 683% increase compared to 2017.
People love a good comeback story, so the inevitable next question is, if Woods is drawing crowds and hyping TV ratings this much, when will the brands start sniffing around again? Are we one decent Masters showing away from a new epic Nike ad? Maybe. But while some of his golf-specific sponsors might dust off their Tiger-related marketing strategies, don’t expect any broad consumer brands to follow suit. In the wake of his 2009 sex scandal, Woods lost sponsors including Gillette, AT&T, and Gatorade; last year’s DUI arrest didn’t help his off-the-golf course reputation rebuild.
According to the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), a consumer research analysis that evaluates a celebrity’s awareness, appeal, and relevance to brand image and influence on consumer buying behavior, Woods’ awareness is still through the roof, but he’s got a downside.
“We test him often, and there is still a very significant lack of trust and likability, in terms of the general population,” says Matt Delzell, managing director of The Marketing Arm/Davie Brown Talent, which conducts the DBI and advises major marketers on celebrity and athlete endorsements. “It’s an interesting balance we don’t see with a lot of athletes, where people want to see him perform well because it adds excitement to the sport, even for casual golf fans. But no one is looking at these numbers and saying, ‘This is a guy I’ve got to attach my brand to.’ The numbers don’t justify that, especially the kind of money he’d be asking for.”
Right now Woods’ DBI awareness rating is 95, meaning 95% of Americans know who he is or recognize his face. That’s actually up by 3% since November 2016. When it comes to appeal, about 57% of Americans claim to like him to some degree, putting him on similar DBI footing as Tom Brady and Lonzo Ball. That sounds really encouraging, until you see his trust rating of 34% ranks him alongside Mike Tyson.
But again, never underestimate the power of a good comeback. The sports scandal history books are littered with stories of athletes who have overcome all kinds of personal and reputation issues to score big brand deals, thanks to a little thing called winning. Winning causes pop culture amnesia. It’s why we didn’t hear an awful lot about Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case during his much-heralded, NBA retirement victory lap, or when he won an Oscar a few weeks ago, despite the prominence of the #MeToo movement. And Delzell has seen it in the stats. “It’s amazing how much people forget once you start winning again,” he says.
It’s been almost 20 years since his best Nike ad, and people love a good reboot.
If the elbow room is starting to get tight on the Woods bandwagon right now, just imagine what getting a new green jacket next month could do.