LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tiger Woods’ decision to withdraw from professional golf due to a sex scandal raised questions Friday about his future as a magnet for corporate sponsors, with AT&T (T.N) saying it was evaluating its ties.
The phone and wireless operator was among the first to respond to the star athlete’s admission of marital infidelity and his announcement that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from the sport.
Analysts said companies with endorsement deals with Woods, 33, the first athlete to earn $1 billion, are weighing their options but added that they did not expect them to rush to abandon their sponsorship agreements with the American star.
“If I was them, I would just wait to see if this thing blows over or not,” said Brad Adgate, research director with TV ad buying firm Horizon Media. “Typically, it does blow over.”
“His image has really been I think tarnished a little bit. I don’t know if he’ll be able to get new deals,” Adgate said.
But far from dropping him immediately, Nike said in a statement that Woods is “one of the greatest athletes of his era” and that “he and his family have Nike’s full support.”
In a statement AT&T said: “We support Tiger’s decision and our thoughts will be with him and his family. We are presently evaluating our ongoing relationship with him.”
Video game company Electronic Arts Inc said in a statement: “We respect that this is a very difficult, and private, situation for Tiger and his family. At this time, the strategy for our Tiger Woods PGA TOUR business remains unchanged.”
Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that TAG Heuer has ordered stores in Australia to remove advertising posters that featured Woods.
Woods, who is married to former Swedish model Elin Nordegren and has two children with her, has been the subject of intense public scrutiny since his November 27 car crash outside his Florida home, which led to rumors of infidelity.
The scandal gained further traction as several women came forward to say they had affairs with Woods or were named by media as having done so. The women included a cocktail waitress and a porn star.
Woods’ withdrawal from the spotlight is likely to hammer golf broadcasts -- ratings for tournaments dropped nearly 50 percent in the eight months he was absent in 2008-2009, as he recovered from knee surgery.
“The biggest impact is actually going to be on television, as well as the actual game itself,” said Larry Gerbrandt, a leading media and entertainment executive, analyst and consultant.
Gerbrandt noted there was uncertainty because Woods had not made it clear how long he would be away from golf. “His value as an endorser keeps growing when he plays, the longer you’re away from the game, (your value) changes,” Gerbrandt said.
Broadcasters like the Walt Disney Co-owned (DIS.N) sports cable outlet ESPN will be hurt, analysts said.
In a survey by business conference organizer Argyle Executive Forum this week, more than 75 percent of marketing professionals polled said they would curtail endorsement relationships with Woods if they had such deals in place.
But the athlete’s star power -- he is the embodiment of golf for many fans of the sport -- could allow him to survive the scandal and re-emerge to continue his career, both as an athlete and corporate sponsorship draw.
He has almost single-handedly ushered in the era of multimillion-dollar endorsements and lucrative appearance payments for athletes since going professional in 1996, becoming one of the world’s most marketable athletes.
His diverse background and clean-living reputation had helped draw millions of new fans to the sport.
“What Tiger has accomplished even if he never plays another round, he’s already accomplished things that rank him among the greatest golfers, if not the greatest,” Gerbrandt said.
The last prime-time television spot that featured Woods ran on November 29 -- two days after the media circus picked up -- but analysts say that may have to do with the winding down of the PGA Tour.
Other athletes have shown resilience in the wake of worse scandals. National Basketball Association star Kobe Bryant bounced back after he was charged with sexual assault in 2003. The charges were later dropped.
Editing by Edwin Chan, Paul Simao and Eric Walsh