As early as 2000, branding and marketing experts were anointing Tiger Woods the Billion- Dollar Man. He would one day reach a net worth of 10 figures, they predicted, an accomplishment even Michael Jordan hadn't achieved. "The easy answer is that if anybody can [reach $1 billion], it's Tiger," his agent Mark Steinberg said that summer.
And it was Tiger. According to Forbes, Woods cracked $1 billion in career earnings in September 2009, shortly before revelations of his extramarital affairs caused most of his sponsors to flee. Three years later, we live in a post-Tiger era of sorts. Woods is neither the game's best player nor its most marketable brand. Rory McIlroy is. He's the personable, fresh-faced anti-Tiger, and he'll pick up where Woods left off, bathing in corporate marketing money, with enough sponsors to make a NASCAR driver blush. Which raises the tantalizing question: Can McIlroy be golf's next Billion-Dollar Man?
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There are two ways to commercialize an athlete, says Phil de Picciotto, founder of the sports marketing agency Octagon. "You either sell stardom or the anticipation of stardom," he says. The golf world hopes Rory will be the next Tiger. And hope, as President Obama knows, is a valuable -- if perishable -- commodity.
Hope also becomes irresistible in the context of a good story. In a way, McIlroy didn't reach a new level of fame for winning the 2011 U.S. Open. He reached a new level of fame for losing the Masters, then winning the U.S. Open. During the final round of the 2011 Masters, McIlroy's four-shot lead vanished, exposing him in the most painful, naked way. It transcended golf into the realm of drama, letting viewers emotionally connect with him. When he triumphed two months later at Congressional, the opening chapter of his hero's journey was complete.
The logos soon began to jostle for room on McIlroy's duds: Titleist, Oakley, Spain's Banco Santander, and Jumeirah Group of Dubai. This eclectic mix of sponsors reflects McIlroy's global appeal, and they've contributed to a personal wealth of $18-$20 million, up from $11 million last year, according to the Sunday Times of London.
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The Santander deal was a watershed moment. Most golfers are famous enough to sell clubs and apparel. Only a few are trusted to be the face of a financial-services giant. The background to that deal is revealing: It was negotiated by Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, founder of ISM, who guided McIlroy's early career. In the days following McIlroy's U.S. Open win, Chandler spoke of deals to be done and monetizing McIlroy's breakthrough. Weeks later, Chandler was gone. McIlroy gave his mentor the news after the pair had returned from a lucrative week in China, playing exhibitions for a rumored $5 million. "Bizarre decision," tweeted ISM stablemate Lee Westwood, but it showed a calculating side to McIlroy that had hitherto only surfaced on the course.
The man handed the golden ticket was Conor Ridge, whose Dublin agency, Horizon Sports Management, now oversees the task of building Brand Rory, a job that's more delicate than one might suppose. Job one, says sports marketer de Picciotto, is to create Rory's brand on authenticity. "Brands should never be built with the intention of fooling the audience," he says, alluding to Woods, whose public persona as a family man didn't gibe with his cocktail-waitress fueled weekends in Vegas. "That gap between the brand and the reality created a risk that over time became dramatically exposed. Rory has a brand, but we don't talk about it in terms of the crass commercial way we did about Tiger."
"Many endorsers come across as [just being] in it for the paycheck," adds Rich Katz, founder of golf marketing company Buffalo Communications. "Rory and his Northern Ireland roots don't scream ‘overt commercialism,' and his youthful effervescence makes him an authentic pitchman."
McIlroy's fine late-season play in 2012 kick-started the race to quantify his earnings potential, a pastime to which we seem addicted. "Two Billion Dollar Man?" one newspaper wondered. Such talk is encouraged by the longevity of golf careers. Assuming his stellar play continues, "Rory will make $100 million in endorsements over the next 10 years," says Steve Martin of London's M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment.
Still, it's hard to fathom McIlroy even approaching Tiger-like figures without landing A-list endorsements in the United States. Pre-scandal, Woods attracted blue-chip sponsors such as GM and AT&T. McIlroy's roster lacks heavyweight American brands. Is this because McIlroy is Irish? Or because U.S. companies are now reluctant to invest in a single golfer, preferring the lower-risk route of event or team sponsorship? We'll know more when Ridge negotiates McIlroy's next batch of deals.
The Tiger Woods model of endorsement is just one way of selling fame. Since 1997, Woods has been a highly paid salesman for Nike's golf division, a contract reported to be worth about $20 million a year. Nike has used Tiger's fame to strengthen its own intellectual property: the Swoosh brand. It has worked spectacularly well. Nike Golf reported $623 million in revenue last year.
By contrast, Greg Norman, Tiger's predecessor as the most marketable man in golf, chose to create his own Great White Shark brand. Put another way, he wanted to be Nike, not Tiger Woods working for Nike. "As an athlete, you are a pass-through entity," Norman says, recalling his days as a serial endorser with IMG. "Agents were taking commission on an annual basis, and if you had a three-year deal to represent someone, they would take their money, and you knew there would be another Greg Norman down the line. There was. He was Tiger Woods."
Such decisions -- endorse Nike or become Nike -- are down the road for the 23-year-old. For now, McIlroy can sit back and take his pick of commercial partners, having noted the lesson of the last few years, both in golf and beyond: The value of assets can go down as well as up
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.