Tiger Woods: Despite Scandal, He's Still Winning in Sponsorship Game

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods may be the greatest golfer of his generation, but his game, like his personal life, has been shaky recently. Still, despite his fumbles on the green and lurid revelations of his sexual addiction and dalliances with everybody from porn stars to waitresses (that surprised me too), Woods never lost his ability to sell stuff.

In fact, he topped Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50 list of top-earning American athletes this year for the seventh year in a row, earning a reported $90.5 million in winnings and endorsements. That's down 30% from nearly $128 million two years ago, but considering the state of the economy and the miserable year he had, it's not too shabby. Moreover, Woods earned over $30 million more than rival Phil Mickelson, who finished second on the list.

Signs of Improvement

Though Accenture (ACN), AT&T (T) and PepsiCo's (PEP) Gatorade dropped Woods when the glare of the media spotlight proved too intense, Nike (NKE) and Electronics Arts (ERTS) stood by him. As time passes and the memory of the scandal fades, other endorsers will join Team Woods provided he golfs well and stays out of the tabloid headlines. Acting more human helps, too.

Woods started to let his guard down last week when he admitted that the stress of his divorce from his wife Elin Nordegren was"a lot more difficult than I was letting on." That was the most genuine-sounding thing he said since his multiple affairs were exposed following the bizarre accident at his house last Thanksgiving.

Maybe it's an indication of extensive public relations coaching or the fact that he briefly played his best golf in months. Woods had the early lead in The Barclays tournament at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., though his game went downhill after the first day. Regardless, these are good signs for Woods the businessman and the Professional Golfers Association (PGA), which saw a huge drop in TV ratings after Woods took leave from the game to work on his personal problems.

Despite Bad Behavior, Sponsor Money Still Rolls in

Indeed, corporate America has tolerated behavior as bad as Wood's, if not worse. National Basketball Association star Lattrell Sprewell landed an endorsement contract with a shoe and apparel company after he was suspended in 1999 for throttling his coach PJ Carlesimo and lost his deal with Converse. NBA legend Charles Barkley has endorsement deals and a broadcasting career even though he admitted to police that he was on his way to have an extramarital affair when he was busted for drunk driving in 2008.

Hanesbrands (HBI) hired actor Charlie Sheen as a pitchman though his problems with drug abuse and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss were well-known. The undergarment maker dropped the star of "Two and a Half Men" after he was charged with threatening to kill his wife. Sheen, who pleaded guilty to the charges, is still with the hit CBS (CBS) show. Robert Downey Jr., another actor with a history of drug abuse, is doing commercial voice-over work for Nissan Motor (NSANY) to promote its new electric vehicle The Leaf.

Some athletes even win by losing. Mitch Williams, whose errant pitch cost the Philadelphia Phillies the 1993 World Series, is now a popular local celebrity in the Philadelphia area who regularly appears in commercials for a local car dealership. He also has a sports talk radio show. Professional golfer John Daly, who in 2008 was arrested after passing out drunk in a Hooter's restaurant in North Carolina, still has devoted fans even though he has not won a PGA tournament in years. Daley, who has been married three times and been to alcohol rehab twice, stars in his own reality TV show on the Golf Channel.

Woods in a League of His Own

None of these athletes and actors are in the same stratosphere as Woods, who is third in PGA Tour career victories, trailing only Sam Snead (82) and Jack Nicklaus (73). Forbes magazine claimed he was a billionaire before the scandal broke, a claim the golfer denied. Clearly, his personal failures have tarnished his image and cost him dearly, including the $100 million he reportedly paid his wife in the divorce settlement.

So if his golf game comes back, so will the sponsors.