Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The era of Tiger and the Buick tri-shield is officially over. Like most divorces, it wasn't only about the money. I remember back in '99 when we had the initial discussions with Mark Steinberg at the NEC in Akron, we wondered even then if the relationship would sell a single car. Would anyone believe a young, wealthy, famous black athlete would be caught dead in a Park Avenue unless he actually was dead and the Park Avenue was a hearse?

\nAt the time Buick was the official car of the PGA Tour, the title sponsor of four Tour events and the official car of the World Golf Championships. It was safe to say that in the automotive category, Buick owned golf. The deal with Tiger was the final jewel in the crown. After the initial euphoria wore off, however, the business end of the deal had to be executed in some way that would support the brand and ultimately sell cars. And that's where the struggle really began.

\nThe advertising agency of record at the time was McCann Erickson and they had to come up with a plan to use Tiger in a way that would make sense to not only the existing customer base but that would create new, younger buyers as well. Buick wanted to get on the "maybe" lists of people who previously wouldn't have dreamed of owning one.

\nThe first conclusion they came to was that Tiger shouldn't be a spokesman for a specific model. It would be better to simply make the connection between Tiger, Buick and golf. That was easier said than done and people in and outside the company began to level criticism at the campaign. But the real problem wasn't Tiger, it was the Buick lineup of vehicles — they were boring and staid and no matter how the agency tried, they couldn't make the fit work. GM was working on a more modern vehicle mix for Buick to attract younger buyers, but the new designs were still a few years away from the showroom floor.

\nThe Buick folks still seemed to think that the relationship had value even if it wasn't easy to pinpoint how many cars were sold due to Tiger. After all, just seeing Tiger's caddy carrying that bag around with the big tri-shield and BUICK down the side and strap had some recognition value. Whenever Tiger was in contention on the weekend, the TV ratings went through the roof and that meant millions of new eyes seeing the logo. Although no one could accurately quantify what that was worth, the general sense was that the association with the world's most recognized athlete was invaluable. So in 2004, Buick reenlisted for another five years.

\nThe fact that the contract will be terminated a year early is more a reflection of GM's overall financial condition than anything related to the value of the arrangement. GM senior management didn't want to lose Tiger, but let's face it, if you're going to the government asking for a huge loan because you're running out of money, it's probably a good idea to shed expensive promotional platforms and leave the Gulfstream in the hangar.

\nBuick and Tiger have both benefited from their relationship. From Buick's perspective, I'm not sure Tiger moved a lot of metal off the lots, but the association validated their dominance of U.S. professional golf. For Tiger, the ad campaigns and added exposure cemented him as an endorsement star and they connected him to a distinctively home grown list of companies: Accenture, American Express, Gillette and yes, even Buick, that old man's car. Over the last few years, Buick's demographics have steadily skewed younger. It's hard to say whether Tiger's presence influenced the designers to build cars that younger buyers want or those buyers are moving to Buick because of Tiger. I suspect it's a little of both.

\nThere's no denying Buick is still in trouble as a GM brand. They aren't selling anywhere near enough units to stay afloat and perhaps this latest financial mess will seal their fate in the end. Not having Tiger's bag won't be what kills them, but it was great fun and they will miss him. I was at a meeting with a senior GM executive near the end of October when the subject of Tiger came up. There was one year left on Tiger's deal and the talks of another extension were starting to percolate. This executive believed then that GM and Tiger had to have a conversation about what they both wanted out of the deal going forward.

\nI wasn't part of the discussions that came afterward, but as GM's financial situation deteriorated, I imagine the tone of the meetings changed to comprehend GM's cash crises. At some point I'm guessing Tiger said something like: "Look, you guys have been great to me, and I'd like to continue our deal as well, but you boys are in some seriously hot water. It's been nine great years, let's leave it at that. You don't owe me a dime for the last year of the contract. We good?" And that was it, a graceful exit all around.

\nAs for Tiger's bag? There will be a ton of interest and some may come from competitive car makers. I'd be willing to bet that he will not entertain a foreign nameplate. Mercedes and Lexus are the obvious candidates, but I think Nike will have the right of first refusal and there's no way they'll let that bag get away from them again. If you look at Nike, it almost always goes in for the full Monty: Hat, shirt, glove, shoes, clubs, bag and balls.

\nIn a strange way, this development might bode well for the two remaining Buick title events on Tour, the Buick Invitational in San Diego and the Buick Open in Flint. The company's spokesman, Larry Peck, has repeatedly maintained that the tournaments are viable at least through '09. San Diego costs them about $7 million, but most of that has probably already been paid. Flint is further out, so even though the Tour considers its contracts iron clad, the event could be in some sort of jeopardy. But since Buick owns that tournament it costs less, about $5 million. The $10 million or so the company just saved on the Tiger deal could save the Buick Open.

\nOther questions remain, though. If GM gets the bailout money, will the new "Car Tsar" allow it to spend any of that cash on pro golf events, college basketball or NASCAR sponsorships? If they don't get the dough from Uncle Sam and have to go Chapter 11, will the bankruptcy judge approve such expenditures? Stay tuned boys and girls, this could get interesting.

Jim McGovern ran Buick's golf program from 1998 to 2005 and consults for title sponsors of PGA Tour events.

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