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Endorsements dry up, leaving star golfers with less

Endorsements dry up, leaving star golfers with less

By Rob Oller

The Dispatch’s Memorial Tournament special section

Despite a momentary financial setback, Tiger Woods, golf’s Superman, still has an “S” on his chest. Those he helped save are not as lucky. Their shirt logos are worth less than they used to be.

Turns out the villain that is the economic downturn is not so easily defeated. Even Woods has felt the sting, having parted ways with endorsement partner Buick. But the world’s No. 1 golfer is as recession-proof as it gets in golf, as proved by his endorsement deal with AT&T soon after Buick left the fold.

Woods’ peers on the PGA Tour, meanwhile, the ones who have benefited from the millions of dollars he puts in their pockets through lucrative TV contracts, are discovering the well is not so deep anymore.

“If guys at the top get the same money, that’s good. No one is going to get more,” said Rocco Mediate, whose runner-up finish to Woods last June in the U.S. Open did not generate the kind of endorsement deals that normally would accompany such an accomplishment.

“There’s no money,” Mediate said, shrugging.

Not far from where Mediate was standing on the putting green at Quail Hollow golf course in Charlotte, N.C., last month, Steve Elkington practiced making 8-footers while wearing a “naked” hat and shirt that were without logos. His golf bag also was blank. It has been 10 years since Elkington last won a tour event, so despite being a major championship winner, the Australian isn’t extremely marketable today.

“We’re seeing a lot of that,” said Shaun Micheel, who like Elkington is a PGA Championship winner. “And I think it might be even tougher for some of the rookies this year, because in the past you could pretty much guarantee that you’d get 75 to 100 grand from a ball, shoe and glove (deal).”

Those contracts still exist, but at lower dollar amounts.

“I think guys who you used to say their chests are worth half a million, probably now it’s worth $200,000,” said Lancaster native Joe Ogilvie, a Duke graduate with a finance degree who sits on the tour’s policy board. “I can tell you the club companies have cut down massively on what they’re paying guys. This is an economy that, contrary to people thinking it’s going to get better, it’s not.”

The endorsement downturn is the result of a trickle-down effect in which companies with less disposable income are tightening their advertising and promotional budgets, Steve Flesch said.

“So naturally it comes back down to us. It’s hard for companies to justify giving money to us when they’re letting their own employees go,” he said.

Flesch has not been affected much, mostly because he has not played particularly well the past two seasons.

“The guys who have played really well, I guarantee the opportunities are not there that were there three to four years ago,” he said.

The surest sign that the anemic economy has caught up with the tour?

“Clothing contracts are cut way back,” Flesch said. “Now the guys who used to get paid to wear clothes are just wearing them for free so they can get free clothes.”

To a degree, tour players have not been hit this season as much as they might be next, because most endorsement deals were already in place when the economy really went south in late fall.

“We don’t sign endorsements in the middle of the season. It’s more of a late summer-fall thing when we start working on contracts that are up for the following season,” said Jim Furyk, one of the players most sought out by companies. “And contracts aren’t usually a one-year deal. A player might be trying to work a three- to five-year deal, so hopefully you don’t have all of them coming up at one time.”

The economy is so suspect that it gets blamed for every endorsement drought whether it’s guilty or not. For instance, Ben Curtis said he no longer wears NFL-themed clothing, not because Reebok chose to drop him but because the company did not want to sign him to a long-term deal until it determines whether to continue its role as supplier of official NFL game apparel.

Curtis actually has made out better by no longer wearing NFL team colors. He signed a four-year clothing deal with Titleist and is making more money this year than last.

Mediate, for one, isn’t sweating the endorsement drop-off.

“The bottom line is, I make my money playing golf,” he said.

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