By Rene Osmena, GolfWRX Contributor
Traditions arrive with much anticipation annually. There’s football, the World Series and new seasons on TV. In the golf world, other yearly rites of passage are circled on the calendar — the cup competitions and the race for tour players to keep their cards. For the most fortunate golfers, there are the big paydays around the globe. However, the wonkiest of golf nuts also recognize the end of the golf season as the sport’s version of the “Hot Stove League.”
You may be saying, “What? Golf is an individual sport, and they’re already free agents!” True, but the close of the PGA Tour’s Fall Series and the conclusion of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai means its time for the “Sponsorship Shuffle,” as companies look to stock their rosters with golf’s rising stars.
This particular re-up period is interesting because Rory McIlroy’s Titleist deal expires at the year’s end. Given Titleist’s history of not overpaying staff players and relying on their dominance in the ball market, they are not likely to offer the kind of money worthy of golf’s current phenom. This makes the 23 year-old Northern Irishman the most coveted soon-to-be free agent since LeBron James. The rumor mill is churning about a certain Swoosh-logoed vulture circling overhead waiting to sweep him up. The latest numbers hint that Nike offered Rory $250 million over 10 years.
That’s A-Rod money! That’s Tiger money! Is he worth that?
According to Golf Digest, Tiger Woods made $62 million in “Off Course” income in 2011 and Rory McIlroy made $5.9 million. One could argue that those numbers should be reversed in the future, considering Rory rose to the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings and Tiger failed to win a major championship for the fourth consecutive year. Yes, Tiger bounced back in 2012 with three wins, however, Rory topped him with four wins including a major championship and will end the year as the world’s top-ranked golfer.
Conventional wisdom would then lead one to think, “Rory’s the man now. He is Tiger Woods. Show him the money!” But in one arena Tiger is still the king. People like, no love, watching the dude in the red shirt play golf. They always have, especially when he dominated majors by record margins and willed himself to win the U.S. Open on a broken leg. Now, post scandal, we love Tiger, we hate Tiger, but we still watch Tiger. He’s proven to no longer be immortal in majors, but golf fans either want to watch his comeback or witness his fall.
Rory doesn’t elicit that kind of reaction from the public. They see and appreciate the athletic, graceful swing, the aw-shucks politeness and some fairly dominant golf. But Rory shows a reluctance, more so after Tiger’s troubles, to be the icon at the top. That’s a lot to carry. I firmly believe Rory McIlroy wants to be great; I’m not convinced he wants to be transcendent.
The numbers still show that Tiger is the marquee draw, however. According to Sports Media Watch, televised golf enjoyed its highest ratings in 2012. Tiger played a full schedule for the first time in three years, which led to the surge in viewership. Final round television ratings in Tiger’s three wins (without McIlroy in contention) jumped an average of 161 percent over the previous year. In contrast, when Rory won the PGA Championship, final round ratings were down 17 percent from the previous year (In McIlroy’s other wins, Woods was in contention).
Nike leveraged Tiger’s popularity and built their golf business from the ground up around him. Before Tiger, Nike Golf offered some less-than-stellar golf shirts and golf shoes, but few other products. When Tiger first switched from Titleist, Nike had no clubs or balls in the marketplace. The production of his irons were rumored to have been subcontracted, and his ball was also rumored to be a licensed model from another manufacturer. Now Nike Golf is a truly global golf brand with full product lines and $623 million in gross sales in 2011.
So does Rory deserve Tiger money from Nike? Absolutely not. He’s not only well behind Tiger but arguably behind both Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in the “needle mover’”category.
So should Nike disregard the numbers and just do it — just hand out the big bucks to McIlroy? Name a Nike player besides Tiger that’s in the Top 10? Top 20? Top 30? Anyone? Buehler???
Francesco Molinari, Charl Schwartzel and Carl Pettersson are ranked Nos. 30, 31 and 32 respectively in the most recent World Golf Rankings. That trio plus Mr. Woods make up all Nike staff players in the Top 50. They are all fine players, but not exactly a star-studded lineup after Tiger. So Nike has a massive void created by the bad bets they placed on David Duval, Anthony Kim, Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover and Paul Casey. Rory can more than fill that void. He’s 13 years younger, and will enter his prime as TW exits stage right for good.
But can rivals like Woods and McIlroy have the same sponsor? If it’s Nike, absolutely! Here’s a few examples of rivals that were under the swoosh at the same time: Agassi and Sampras, Federer and Nadal, Kobe and LeBron, LeBron and Kevin Durant, and even North Carolina and Duke.
The cliché goes, “Timing is everything,” and when you’re the best player in the world and Nike not only wants but needs you, it’s time to get paid. There is no other company that can make Rory their centerpiece and build him into a global brand.