Well, if the Tiger story won’t go away, I won’t either

It is late to be adding to the mountain of Tigerology, but up until now most analyses of the business impact of the golfing great’s tomcatting have been disappointingly superficial. It is not news to advertisers, even if it is news to the rest of us, that athlete brands are fragile assets. Let’s be honest here: it’s still 2009, and one extramural boyfriend would have done as much economic damage to Tiger Inc. as a dozen girlfriends have. A company that puts its image in the hands of a sportsman can never have enough information about his private life as it needs to establish 100% confidence that there won’t be a meltdown. Celebrities are risky business, but the market in them exists anyway.

It will go on existing, with some of the air taken out of the major international assets. The sales value of an “athlete” like John Daly is adjusted up front (and not only downward!) for volatility: an efficient market knows there’s a certain probability he might end up in jail for writing bad cheques or squabbling with his eighth wife or gambling on gerbil fights. It’s surprising information that creates economic shocks—and that’s why “hypocrisy” is a problem for celebrity endorsers. It’s not because people consider hypocrisy a particularly high crime in itself, but because it can lead to an incorrect assignment of human capital. They’ve been using Tiger to sell aspirational goods, an ideal of achievement and dedication and family living, to the middle class. He should have been peddling cologne, wine coolers, and condoms all along.

Woods, as a brand, will never get back to where he was. The story behind the story is that Old Tiger was a marketing asset you could use absolutely anywhere: adult North Americans aren’t really surprised that a super-fit billionaire might sometimes take a nightclub hostess back to the hotel, but let’s not forget that Woods is also the best-known Asian sports hero on the planet. On this continent “family values” is a patently insincere term, a phrase whose comic nature is obvious by virtue of it having to be formulated in the first place. (“Family values” wouldn’t need any defence if most of us didn’t have higher values that we were actually following most of the time.) Asia, I think, is different. Over there, they still just call ’em “values”.

Tiger will obviously be forced to readjust, especially since keeping his marriage afloat apparently won’t be an option. The expectation of the public and the commentariat appears to be that this will be a process of personal, spiritual readjustment; that would be great for his image if there were very many goods and services well-suited to be sold by a joyless, contrite, perpetually horny sap, though I guess Bibles and self-help books are always an option. But it would be better for him if he had the self-awareness to embrace larger-than-life/folk hero/beyond-good-and-evil status. (Sports ARE, in some sense, beyond good and evil. They don’t put the green jacket on the golfer who gets voted Miss Congeniality.)

Shaquille O’Neal, whose November divorce got bumped off the sports pages by Tiger, is one of the top endorsers in U.S. sports—hell, he’s an MBA-holding expert in the economics of endorsements! But if you heard he had banged a dozen bottle blondes, wouldn’t your honest first reaction be “So was that all in the same night or did the Diesel spread them out over a whole weekend?” If Derek Jeter got caught doing it, wouldn’t you say “Damn, I guess the Captain finally got tired of brunettes”?

For marketing professionals, the watchwords going forward are: Dark-Side Tiger. Demon-Haunted Tiger. Hedonistic Tiger. And, if and when he gets back on the course, Driven, Avenging Tiger—the ordeal survivor, answering the millions of critics the only way he really knows how, with an iron in his hands. It will be an exciting case study for generations of business majors. If Tiger can rise to the occasion, he will be a much more fascinating figure in the end. We may prefer that our kids model themselves on Arnold Palmer, Ken Griffey, Kurt Warner; but sports is also about, and may be mostly about, the Ty Cobbs. The Mike Tysons. The Ayrton Sennas.