McIlroy Should Ask Obama About The Price of Hope
Until around 2pm Abu Dhabi time today, Rory McIlroy’s appeal was that he wasn’t Tiger Woods. That particular ship has now sailed. The confirmation of McIlroy’s new mega bucks Nike deal means the player has officially accepted ‘The Next Tiger Woods’ mantle and – let’s not over play this, £156million is not a bad return for a loss of innocence – the deal has a downside.
The media coverage of Rory is often accompanied by phrases such as ‘a breath of fresh air’. ‘He comes with no baggage’ is how one analyst put it. This piece in Rory’s local paper, The Belfast Telegraph is typical:
For many years Tiger Woods has been “the face” of Nike but, clearly, the much younger and scandal-free Rory is being groomed as the fallen superstar’s eventual replacement. And with (Lance) Armstrong’s career imploding in disgrace, Nike need to make the right call.
Nike creates global icons that can be put on billboards, and which hurdle language and cultural barriers. The problem with this strategy is when the god like icons – Woods, Armstrong – turn out to be human beings.
Likewise, McIlroy has flaws and will make mistakes, some of which can’t be PR’d away. For now, Nike has bought hope. And as President Obama has demonstrated, hope sells.
“There are two ways to commercialise an athlete” said Phil de Picciotto, president of athletes and personalities at sports marketing agency Octagon. “You either sell stardom or the anticipation of stardom.”
The developed world – where the audience for golf remains highest – is struggling to come out of recession. Good news is at a premium at a time when there’s a Tiger shaped hole at the top of the game: Tiger consumed an awful lot of the available money in golf. “In a recovering market there is a considerable amount of money that has been sitting on the sidelines that can now be invested.”
Enter Rory McIlroy, stage left.
But we all feel a bit silly for buying in to the whole ‘Tiger Woods Brand’ thing that was built and sustained over more than a decade, as he became the most commercially valuable athlete in the world. The problem was the gap between the perception and reality. “Brands should never be built with the intention of fooling the audience, people are too smart for that. That gap between the image and reality created a risk that over time became exposed very dramatically,” says Phil de Picciotto. Any attempt to turn Rory into Tiger Part 2 is flawed. “He has a brand but we don’t talk about it in terms of crass commercial way we did about Tiger.”
The problem is that famous people, even the nice ones, are not normal. It’s just not possible to earn tens of millions of pounds, be known around the world and live like the rest of us. Rory has moved from his home in Holywood because the attention he was getting was too much. He split up with his childhood sweetheart and now has a high profile girlfriend, Caroline Wosniacki, the world’s number one tennis player. Every move takes him away from the ‘normal guy’ persona that is central to his appeal.
His former agent Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler once told me that making money from Rory was easy; protecting him from the rest of the stuff was the hard bit: “If we do it well, he’ll end up being Rory McIlroy not a marketing property.”
Nike is out to prove Chubby wrong. And are we absolutely sure – as Pete Townsend almost once said – that we won’t get fooled again?