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Will sponsors stand by Tiger Woods? Add to ...

As questions swirl around Tiger Woods following a single-car crash near his Florida mansion last Friday, visitors to the website of Accenture PLC are greeted by a picture of golf's biggest superstar trying to hit his way out of tall grass and a clutch of cactuses.

The photo is part of a campaign by the consulting firm that pitches its services to help companies navigate a thorny business environment. Now that Mr. Woods has found himself in a prickly problem of his own, do his sponsors, including Accenture, have the patience to stand by and wait for him to chop his way to the green?

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Mr. Woods earns an estimated $110-million (U.S.) a year, more than his winnings on the golf course, to endorse brands that straddle the worlds of sports equipment, telecommunications, personal grooming, jet time-shares, and luxury timepieces. He is perhaps most closely associated with Nike, which distributes a line of Tiger Woods-branded sportswear.

But these companies pay up not merely because of his athletic still, but because of his image as a clean-cut man who had displayed extraordinary precision both on the golf course and off it - until the bizarre accident and the messy aftermath.

On Monday, Nike stood by its main man. "Tiger and his family have Nike's full support," the company said in a written statement. "We respect Tiger's request for privacy and our thoughts are with Tiger and his family at this time." NetJets and PepsiCo's Gatorade unit issued similar statements of support. International Marketing Group, which handles Mr. Woods' sponsorship business, had no comment on the events or the state of his endorsement deals.

Fans and other members of the public seem curious about the events that led to Mr. Woods crashing his Cadillac Escalade against a fire hydrant and a neighbour's tree outside his home, but willing to forgive him if, as alleged, domestic strife was the source of the incident. Bloggers and others commenting on social media sites said he was entitled to the privacy he requested in a statement Sunday afternoon.

But marketing experts say Mr. Woods does not necessarily have that right. "If you take money for commercial deals which basically say, 'Look at me, I'm a good guy, and I'm a decent clean-living citizen,' the public buy into that," said Phil Hall, president of London-based media consulting firm PHA, which handles communications and crisis management for sports figures and others.

"If it's razor blades, or it's a particular car and you're saying, 'Look I'm a clean-living family man, come buy the car because you know the sort of person I am and you want to be a person like me,' then I think you forfeit the right to your private life because [the public is]buying a product, buying an image," Mr. Hall said. "If that image is not true, the media is entitled to expose the truth. And, I'm afraid, once you take that dollar you've got to take the responsibility that goes with it."

Mr. Woods has a limited amount of time to fully explain the events, or risk staining both his own brand and those of his sponsors, Mr. Hall said.

"People accept that sometimes human beings err, but when they fan the flames by lying and compounding the [error] people aren't so forgiving. It's never the mistake that brings the politician down, it's the cover-up afterwards."

But the current public relations tailspin won't affect only the companies that directly sponsor Mr. Woods. On Monday, he pulled out of this week's Chevron World Challenge, which he was due to host and play. Proceeds from the event go to Mr. Woods' charitable foundation.

If he were to pull out of other tournaments, viewership of those events would plummet, causing harm to both broadcasters and the name sponsors. When he was sidelined for knee surgery, viewership at the PGA Championship dropped 58 per cent from the previous year.

 

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