Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tiger Woods - A Lesson for Track and Field

Tiger Woods announces he will take an indefinite break from golf

Tiger Woods has been the most identifiable athlete on the planet this New Millennium. He has become THE face of golf - nearly single handedly increasing its visibility. If you doubt that simply take a look at the increase in golf tournaments on TV since his rise to the top - and the difference in ratings when he does not compete.

As a matter of fact the year that Tiger took off to rehab after surgery television ratings dropped in half as viewership went from approximately 4 million viewers per tournament down to approximately 2 million per tournament. That's HUGE! With his squeaky clean image, leading the way like Rudolph's shiny nose, golf hooked its sleigh up to Tiger and has ridden him and his stardom to ratings, popularity, and riches.

Then there was the late night accident. The revelation of an affair. Then other women came forward. The news nightmare. The seclusion. The public backlash. Now we've gotten the withdrawal of Tiger from the PGA tour for an indefinite period of time - and golf is left pondering its immediate future!

What happened? Its simple - Tiger is human. And, you see, we often forget that our sports stars are just people. That regardless the level of physical prowess an athlete may attain, they still remain human - with the potential to be as flawed as any other human being.

We've seen it before - the flawed athlete. We've seen it all. The recreational drugs - Len Bias, Tony Fein. Performance enhancing drugs - Marion Jones, Manny Ramirez. Selfish behavior - Terrell Owens, Randy Moss. And yes infidelity - Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. Everything we find in the "Real World" we find in the world of sports, music, movies, and every other endeavor in life - because they're all populated by real people.

You see, as much as we would like to put our "heroes" on pedestals and pretend that their special abilities make them super human in all phases of life, at the end of the day they are all Clark Kent - because Superman is just an imaginary person. All have their failings and are subject to the same temptations and vices as the rest of us. In some cases it may even be worse because sometimes they too begin to believe the hype and behave as if they are truly above reproach!

So what's the lesson here for track and field? Well there was little problem for basketball when Kobe Bryant had to face his issues. Nor for baseball when Manny Ramirez had to come clean. Because these sports are marketed not on the strength of one or two singular individuals, but on the strength of the entire sport! No single athlete is the face of either sport, but like football has a marketing scheme that takes in several of their stars in an attempt to broaden appeal and the base of support. No single athlete is placed above the others in importance, and when one athlete is injured, or his failings betray him, there are others already with visibility in the public eye - and life continues forward unaltered.

But golf, like track and field, has taken a different approach. The marketing focus throughout this decade in golf has been on the mercurial talent of Tiger Woods. He has been THE face of golf. Yes he's won the majority of titles, and yes he has been a dominant force. But the tour is full of golfers that are great in their own rights - if just a hair below Tiger - yet the general public knows very little about these individuals. And that poses a HUGE problem for golf now that Tiger Woods' popularity is plummeting faster than a speeding bullet! So fast that sponsors are either hitting the brakes and going into neutral, or simply jumping ship before they too go down in his wake.

So now golf is left pondering its fate due to the flaws of a single human being. Sort of like those that once held portfolios containing nothing but Enron stock - wealthy one day, dirt poor the next. Such is the risk taken when individuals, corporations, or sports fail to diversify! Baseball, football, and basketball are sports that are well diversified in the marketing of their athletes. Golf, on the other hand, has been on the Enron only plan - and is now facing potentially disastrous results.

Therein lies the lesson for track and field - one that it already should be quite familiar with. You see we've been down this road ourselves before, because for whatever reason we can't seem to tout more than a couple of star athletes at a time. Yet after attaching our sleigh to the Rudolph that was Marion Jones - and losing face. Then again to the sleigh that was Justin Gatlin - and losing face. You would think that the sport would look to hype more than just Usain Bolt - because what if, yet again, we find ourselves losing face?

Nothing against Bolt, mind you. But Tiger seemed to be about as squeaky clean as you can get. Yet we've had mistress upon mistress emerge from the shadows and we now hear that a Canadian doctor that has treated Tiger Woods and other elite athletes may have provided him with performance enhancing drugs.

So having already gone through the negative press of athletes' transgressions in this sport, and watching what one would have thought to be THE quintessential choir boy go down in flames, diversification in marketing would seem to be as logical a move for this sport as making sure your portfolio contains some treasuries, and a couple of pharmaceuticals to go along with that Ford and General Motors you're holding!

Besides, we have some fantastic athletes that could use the additional exposure. Kenenisa Bekele, Allyson Felix, Veronica Campbell, Blanka Vlasic, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Dayron Robles are just a handful of athletes with career accomplishments solid enough to warrant marketing campaigns being built around them too! So why have one star when you can have a constellation? We have some of the best athletes on the planet patrolling our tracks and the fields - we should be telling the world about as many as we can.

After all, when Santa takes to the skies next week, Rudolph may be leading the way, but the sleigh won't get too far unless Donner, Dasher, Blitzen and the rest of the crew are hooked up and pulling too. Ask golf. I'm sure they wish we were a little more in familiar with Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, and Zach Johnson right about now.

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