Tiger Woods: As the media storm builds, what will happen to his endorsements?

As stories of Tiger Woods' alleged marital discord, alleged infidelity and alleged abuse at the hands of his wife fill the news, an obvious question is how this crisis will affect his lucrative endorsement career. After all, Forbesrecently minted him as the first billion dollar athlete, and almost $800 million of his earnings have come from lucrative endorsements with companies that include Nike (NKE), Gillette (PG), and Gatorade (PEP).

In response to requests for comment, spokespeople from Gatorade and Nike both reaffirmed their support for Woods. Although representatives from his other companies were unavailable for comment, Accenture (ACN) continues to feature him prominently on its site, while Buick (GRM), whose Rendezvous SUV Woods represented from 2002 to 2009, reported that he is no longer associated with the company. When asked if the carmaker was upset by the fact that the golf player was driving a Cadillac Escalade at the time of his accident, representatives issued a firm "no comment."
Steven Levitt, president of Q Scores, stated that it was far too early to determine the scope of Woods' scandal, much less the effect that will have on his endorsements. However, he pointed out that Kobe Bryant has still not gained back the popularity he lost when he was involved in a widely-discussed adultery situation. Stressing that this scandal is not comparable to Michael Phelps' marijuana situation, Levitt noted that extramarital affairs can be very damaging to celebrities, particularly someone like Woods, who conveys a family-oriented public image.

Amid the growing fury of the Woods affair, it's worth noting that the actual facts surrounding his accident are fairly thin: basically, he pulled out of the driveway of his Orlando-area home, crashed his Escalade into a fire hydrant and careened into a tree. According to a 911 call from his neighbor, the accident left Woods unconscious and lying on his front lawn, and when police officers arrived on the scene, he was apparently incoherent, but conscious enough to speak. He had lacerations on his lips and blood in his mouth, and an ambulance took him to Health Central Hospital, where he was treated and released.

Those are the known and duly-reported facts in the case, but the facts have already been overwhelmed by supposition and gossip. For example, there is the matter of the golf clubs: according to Woods and a police spokesman, the golf player's wife, Elin Nordegren, broke the rear windows of the Escalade in an attempt to extricate her husband. Other sources, however, have claimed that Nordegren used the golf clubs on her husband, not the car.

This little detail opens up a veritable wormhole of theories. As Levitt notes, if Nordegren dragged her husband out of his car -- an impressive feat, given his size and the mechanics involved -- it's worth asking why she used a golf club, rather than a key to get him out of the car. If, on the other hand, she scratched and/or clubbed him, the next question is why she chose to do so.

When it comes to marital discord, the tabloid-ready cause is always adultery; in this case, there is already a handy villain waiting in the wings. Enter Rachel Uchitel, a semi-tragic figure who lost a fiance on 9/11 and wed another man three years later in a marriage that lasted just a few months. Although Uchitel is officially a nightclub promoter, she seems to have made being the sort-of-other woman into a lucrative sideline. In one of the most back-handed self-aggrandizing lines in recorded human history, she recently noted that "Although I've been romantically linked to a famous baseball player, a Broadway star, a musician, and various film and television actors, I will never kiss and tell." This list, by the way, includes David Boreanaz, a well-known television actor who is married and has two children.

So we have a squeaky-clean golf player and a tabloid-ready piece of arm candy: the only question, then, is how to link them. Last week, the National Enquirer did just that when it printed a claim from Ashley Samson, another professional partygoer: according to Samson, Uchitel and Woods are having an affair. Never mind that Uchitel has repeatedly denied the claim, or that she has offered a counter-assertion that the Enquirer paid Samson $25,000 for the gossip; within days, the media was bubbling with the news that hitherto-spotless Tiger Woods was playing in the rough. Meanwhile, Uchitel has engaged the services of Gloria Allred, all-purpose legal gadfly. While watchers anticipate that the pair will be pursuing legal action against the Enquirer, it is worth noting that hiring Allred is exactly the wrong thing to do if one wishes to let a story die quietly.

As for Woods, gossip site TMZ reported that he told a friend that "I have to run to Zales to get a 'Kobe Special,'" which he went on to describe as "a house on a finger." The reference to Kobe Bryant is presumably designed to play into the adultery hypothesis.

And what's the truth? Well, the truth is that we don't know. Out of a small kernel of verifiable events, celebrity sites and professional gossips have managed to construct a vast pile of assertions and rumors, painting an image of Woods as philanderer that may permanently taint his media career. In fact the one absolutely clear fact in the matter is that, regardless of how this scandal affects Woods' endorsements, there is a lot of money to be made in chewing up his reputation. Gloria Allred seems ready to cash a few checks, as does Rachel Uchitel. Ashley Samson may have already gotten paid, and it seems likely that more media appearances -- and checks -- will be forthcoming. In the meantime, one of America's highest-paid and most respected athletes has to stand by and watch as his lucrative endorsement career is threatened by the frenzied feeding of the paparazzi.
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