When Tiger Woods' break from golf ends, he is unlikely to regain his crown as one of the world's most valuable pitchmen, even if he gets back to winning tournaments and convinces people he has changed.
America loves comeback stories, but his future advertising opportunities are likely to be limited to sports-product endorsements, significantly reducing his earnings power.
That was the take-away from Gillette's announcement yesterday that it won't feature Woods in its ads for an unspecified period of time. It was the first major sponsor to distance itself from Woods since he announced late Friday he is taking an indefinite leave from golf to work on his marriage after allegations of infidelity surfaced in recent weeks.
Woods' time-out and request for privacy may give sponsors the cover they need to pull their ads indefinitely and distance themselves from allegations that Woods had trysts with multiple women.
AT&T said it was evaluating its relationship with the golfer. The AT&T National, hosted by Woods, is scheduled for July 1-4 at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Delaware County.
"We plan to welcome 120 of the world's best pros at Aronimink Golf Club this summer for what will be an exciting week of competition that benefits young people worldwide through the Tiger Woods Foundation," Greg McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer of the Tiger Woods Foundation, said yesterday.
Representatives from Accenture won't say what its plans are regarding Woods, whom the consulting firm has used to personify its claimed attributes of integrity and high performance. But its Web site no longer displays on its home page an image of the golfer that had been there as recently as Thursday.
Before the Nov. 27 SUV accident that exposed Woods' alleged serial infidelity, 91 percent of the opinions expressed about him on the Internet were positive, according to Zeta Interactive. As of yesterday, Woods' positive rating online had fallen to just 41 percent.
Gillette, which uses the slogan "The best a man can get," said it won't air advertisements featuring Woods or include him in public appearances.
"This is supporting his desire to step out of the public eye, and we're going to support him by helping him to take a lower profile," said Damon Jones, a spokesman for Gillette, a unit of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble.
He would not say when - or if - the company would resume ads with Woods. Woods hasn't been seen in a prime-time television commercial since a Gillette spot on Nov. 29, according to the Nielsen Co. research firm.
No companies have cut ties altogether to Woods in the weeks since his marital troubles came to light, tarnishing the image of a man who spent 13 years in the public eye carefully cultivating a good-guy image. But with the 33-year-old's decision to leave golf - at least temporarily - they are forced to consider their future with him.
"They're going to hedge, they're going to buy some time to determine whether or not the situation will turn," said Rick Burton, former chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic Committee and now a sports marketing professor at Syracuse University.
Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, said Friday it would be "premature and inappropriate" to talk about Woods' specific business relationships. "Each sponsor has unique considerations, and ultimately the decisions they make we would fully understand and accept," he said.
Woods' endorsements helped him become the first sports star to earn $1 billion, according to Forbes. Michael Jordan, Woods' closest contemporary, is a distant second at $800 million, amassed during and after an NBA career that spanned nearly 20 years.
Nike Inc. said late Friday it supported Woods' decision.
For Nike, which built its golf business that generates $650 million a year in revenue around Woods, the timing of the scandal couldn't be worse. "Nike Golf is Tiger Woods," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR. "This is the time of year that they should be selling golf clubs for Christmas."
The PGA's contracts with TV broadcasters NBC and CBS expire in 2012, with negotiations on a new deal likely to begin during the second half of next year.
As a measure of Woods' importance to the PGA, the average TV rating fell by nearly 50 percent for a host of 2008 tournaments that Woods missed while he was recovering from knee surgery, according to the Nielsen Co.