Sabrina Sanchez
Jan 18, 2024

Tiger Woods’ 27-year Nike deal offers clues into the complex world of athlete endorsements

Marketers agree that while expensive and high-stakes, long-term deals have benefits for both brands and athletes.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Nothing lasts forever—though, in the case of the decades-long partnership between Nike and legendary golfer Tiger Woods, it seemed like it might. 

On Jan. 8, Woods announced on X that his endorsement partnership with Nike would come to an end after 27 years. 

The announcement shocked both sports fans and Nike consumers, as, in the tale of brand-athlete marriages, the partnership was a template for the sports marketing industry. 

Modeled after Michael Jordan’s lifetime deal with Nike that resulted in the Air Jordan brand, Woods’ name, image and likeness catapulted Nike into the golf scene at a time when the brand sought to diversify its sports product lines. 

In turn, Woods lent his face and talent to some of Nike’s most iconic campaigns created in partnership with Wieden + Kennedy. 

I am Tiger Woods, one of Nike’s first spots with the golfer released in 1996, depicted child golfers referring to themselves as “Tiger Woods.” Juggle, AKA Hacky Sack, a 30-second spot released in 1999, features Woods bouncing a golf ball off of his club before finally whacking it into the distance. And Never, which debuted before the 2008 U.S. Open, used a voiceover from Tiger Woods’ father, Earl Woods, who had died of cancer two years earlier. 

An exemplary NIL deal goes south

According to Jason Cieslak, president of Pacific Rim at Siegel + Gale, Woods and Nike’s partnership was so successful that the two became synonymous with each other in the realm of golf. 

Under the contract, Woods became the face of Nike Golf, a merchandise line that includes golf shoes, apparel and accessories. 

His iconic red polo shirt featuring the Nike swoosh prominently on the left chest graced print ads throughout several decades, becoming so recognisable it is even the inspiration for Nike’s final ad with Woods. 

But for Nike, what began as a smart, strategic investment, eventually became an unsustainable expense. 

Lifetime or even decades-long deals with icons are expensive, and Nike was no longer in the position to sustain this level of investment in golf, Cieslak explained. While at first, Nike stood to profit from Woods’ iconography, the brand has more recently struggled to maintain relevance in the sport. 

According to Statista, Nike's golf division never broke the billion-dollar annual sales mark. Instead, an annual fiscal report shows that Nike Golf revenue peaked just shy of $800 million in 2013, before dropping below $600 million in 2017.

After that, Nike stopped breaking out revenue figures for its golf business. 

Infographic: Tiger Woods and Nike End Iconic Partnership After 27 Years | Statista

In December, ahead of the company’s Q2 earnings call, The No Laying Up golf podcast reported that the Dec. 14 to 17 PNC Championship tournament would mark the last time that Tiger Woods is represented as a Nike athlete. The report also speculated other golf stars—Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka—could also be dropped and Nike’s golf line dissolved.

At the same time, the partnership with Woods grew increasingly costlier as his notoriety grew. The most recent 10-year agreement between Woods and Nike was reportedly worth about $200 million

“Very few companies can be in industries making mediocre products and live to tell about it,” Cieslak said. 

As a result, Nike began scaling down its investment in the golf—stopping all production of golf equipment in 2016. Meanwhile, in December, Nike said it would cut $2 billion in costs across the company in the coming years. 

During this time, Nike has doubled down on other sports like basketball, where it has had more success. Three out of the only four athletes to have lifetime deals with Nike—Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kevin Durant—play for the NBA. 

Meanwhile, Woods’ own golf career began to fade, with his last major victory taking place in 2019 and injuries plaguing his game after suffering through a serious car crash in 2021. 

Things took a turn when, in 2022, Woods appeared at the Masters Tournament in FootJoy shoes rather than his customary Nikes—although he said the decision was due to health considerations.

“Golf is going through an identity crisis. [Nike’s] biggest single ticket item they've got is Tiger, and he's at the end of his career—his powers are waning a little,” said Simon Hill, president of North America at FutureBrand. “He probably wants to do something different too.”

Nike stands to lose more

Like Jordan, Woods’ deal with Nike carved a path for larger and more intricate athletic endorsements in which athletes have a lot more skin in the game, a person with experience in brokering sports deals with brands told Campaign US

Athletes with endorsement deals have recently taken more involvement in brand direction, with some, such as body builder David Laid, even taking on the role of creative director. Athletes have also struck equity deals, such as NBA star Stephen Curry, whose agreement with Under Armour includes a stake in the company. Others, like Jordan, have co-created product lines and shared in the royalties from sales. 

These deals can be mutually beneficial by offering the athlete a layer of security beyond payments for appearances in ads, while positioning the athlete as a believer in the brand and its products. Deals that include equities and royalties are also more likely to keep an athlete happy, because they have a direct stake in the success of the company, said the person familiar with NIL deals.

Such deals also move endorsements into the realm of collaboration and can yield great results, as Nike’s partnership with Jordan has done, for instance.

Given the brand-building power of such deals, Nike might have more to lose long-term than it will gain in the short-term from cutting ties with Woods, said Cieslak. Continuing to work with Woods could have positioned the brand at the forefront of his transition from golf star athlete to sports legend—as well as with the next generation of golfers.

Woods’ son, Charlie Woods, for instance, is gaining prominence as a golfer. The next brand to strike a deal with Woods might have opportunities to create marketing moments around the Woods golf legacy—and create a new line of golf products geared toward a younger generation. 

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over

The dissolution of the Nike-Woods partnership proves that there is no real playbook for lifetime or decades-long athletic partnerships—and there is always more room to negotiate and realise untapped potential. 

Though his golf career is ending, the end of his partnership with Nike will hardly be the end of Woods’ NIL opportunities, predicted FutureBrand’s Hill. 

“He’s got so much equity in his brand and what he offers, and he's got very clear ambitions for what he wants to do in golf and culture and society. He is so much more than just Nike,” he said.

Plus, there may yet be opportunities for Woods and Nike to come together again with a nostalgia play, added the person familiar with NIL deals.

For instance, in 2023, legendary Dallas Cowboys player Emmitt Smith cut a deal with Reebok to resurface his iconic ES22 sneaker for a limited time long after his deal with the company ended, allowing him to connect with a younger demographic. 

Similarly, Nike may one day decide to bring back golf polos for a limited time, he theorised. 

Only time, and the terms of Woods’ next partnership deal (should there be one), will tell. 

Regardless of Woods’ future with other brands, marketers agree his partnership with Nike will leave a lasting impact on golf fans and solidify Nike’s place alongside him during the peak moments in his career. 

It may be over, but it won’t be forgotten—and its end will only make room for the next champion. 

 
 

 

Source:
Campaign US

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