For Tiger Woods’ Sports Agent, It’s All About Brand Management

When Mark Steinberg heard that his client, pro golfer Annika Sorenstam, had said publicly that she wanted to play in a men’s tournament, his first thought was, “bad idea.”

 

Steinberg, a sports agent who also represents Tiger Woods, figured Sorenstam had nothing to gain. Even if she played well, she would finish in the middle of the pack; men, being stronger, hit the ball farther than women. If she played poorly, she would hurt her image and marketability.

 

Soon he realized how wrong he was. Sorenstam tees off tomorrow (May 22) at the Bank of America Colonial Golf tournament in Ft. Worth, Texas. But her decision already has brought her prizes that Steinberg hadn’t imagined.

 

She has been deluged with media attention in the three and a half months since saying, in response to a reporter’s question, that she would love to try competing in a men’s Professional Golf Association event. She has appeared on The Jay Leno Show, 60 Minutes, The Today show, the CBS Early Show, in Time magazine and in a cover shoot for Golf magazine.

 

Just being on 60 Minutes boosted her marketability more than her 24 wins in the past two years on the women’s professional golf tour, Steinberg added. “That’s kind of sad, but that’s the reality of the business.” 

 

Steinberg, who spoke at Wharton several weeks ago, is senior vice president for golf at Cleveland-based IMG, a sports- and entertainment-marketing company. He also represents Vince Carter, a star with the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association.

 

IMG’s founder, Mark McCormack, whom Sports Illustrated once called the most powerful man in sports, died last week at age 72. Besides serving a raft of pro athletes and performers, the company is the world’s largest producer of television programming. McCormack started IMG in 1960 when he agreed, on a handshake, to serve as agent for a friend, golf great Arnold Palmer. “We still represent Arnold Palmer, and it’s still a handshake agreement,” Steinberg says.

 

These days, Palmer is overshadowed by Sorenstam, the best player on the women’s pro golf tour, and Woods, the best player on the men’s.

 

Steinberg told his Wharton audience that representing a star in an individual sport such as golf is much like managing a consumer brand. “Coca-Cola, Kodak, Nike – those are three of the largest international brands. Tiger Woods is on a par with them. You can’t walk down a street in Kuala Lumpur or New Zealand and say, ‘Tiger Woods,’ and not get a response.”

 

Steinberg therefore considers himself the “CEO of a corporation” charged with enhancing and protecting the Woods brand. He analyzes potential sponsorships through that prism. Ditto for Sorenstam’s deals. 

 

But just as important, he seeks out contracts with companies for whom Woods will be a believable spokesman, whether it’s Nike in golf gear and clothing, or American Express in financial services. (Media reports have said Woods’s Nike contract pays him $150 million over five years; Steinberg wouldn’t confirm that.)

 

Sometimes, extending the brand means taking risks, too. Like when Steinberg persuaded Woods to sign with a car company. A car manufacturer, Steinberg had told his client, would give the golfer greater international visibility. In looking for a deal, Steinberg met with all the companies that you would expect – Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus – and one you might not – Buick.

 

“Buick was telling me all along that they needed to get younger, that they couldn’t afford to be just your grandfather’s car anymore. They wanted to go to being your father’s car, and from that, to being your car. I believed them but I needed to see more. People don’t think of Tiger Woods driving a Buick.”

 

The carmaker’s advertising agency came forward with 17 different “story boards” – elaborate proposals for commercials – featuring Woods. “To show me 17 story boards when Tiger’s not with them is mind boggling. That would take months to put together.”

 

So Steinberg “put his rear end on the line” and recommended the Detroit automaker to Woods. The result has been a series of commercials that Steinberg considers “the best spots that Tiger does right now. They’re very young and hip, and they have some levity.” Plus, Woods is endorsing what Steinberg sees as a credible product – the Rendezvous, Buick’s first sport-utility vehicle. “Maybe BMW would have been more believable,” Steinberg suggests. “But what Buick has done is bring Tiger to the masses.”

 

That points to another tenet of Steinberg’s strategy: He tries to ensure that his clients, through their endorsement deals, are seen by a broad range of people, including Americans and foreigners, diehard and casual fans, the rich and the middle-class, adults and kids.

 

Consider Woods’ cross-section of endorsements. “Nike hits everywhere. American Express is more high-end. Buick, more mainstream and blue collar. [Video-game maker] EA Sports targets kids.”

 

An agent’s job also entails a delicate tango with the client, balancing what the agent thinks the athlete should do with what the athlete wants and, even more fundamentally, who he or she is.

 

Part of the reason Steinberg changed his mind about Sorenstam’s playing in a PGA tournament was because of what she told him. “She said, ‘I just want to see if I can do it.’ And I said, ‘That’s perfect.’ The proper play on this wouldn’t be, ‘I am [tennis player] Billy Jean King, and I’m doing this for women’s equality.’ That’s not Annika.”

 

Steinberg found himself in a similarly knotty situation during the flap over whether a woman should be admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club, which sponsors the Masters. Critics of the club called on Woods to boycott the tournament, and Woods’ efforts to answer them, and also play, made him look wishy-washy. Steinberg says his client’s stance was misrepresented in the press. 

 

“If you look at his comments, Tiger said more than anybody else, including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, who are members of Augusta. He said, ‘I think a woman should be admitted into Augusta. However, I’m not a member, and I can’t influence the rules.’”

 

The chairman of the private club, banker Hootie Johnson, made that clear, saying, “I’m not going to tell Tiger Woods how to hit a golf ball, and Tiger Woods isn’t going to tell me how to run my club.”

 

“If Tiger hadn’t played the Masters, what would have happened?” Steinberg asks. “Tiger would not have played, and no woman would have been admitted. He’s not going to be a martyr.”

 

However, one could argue that Steinberg’s version of the controversy overlooks both the power of the image he has helped create and sports history. Athletes such as baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax and boxer Muhammed Ali have taken risky social stands that mattered for little more than their symbolism. Koufax, who’s Jewish, declined to pitch in a World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur, and Ali refused to fight during the Vietnam War, saying famously, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.”

 

“Tiger gets beaten up on social issues because people think he has that Michael Jordan/Teflon image. But Tiger is one who will speak his mind,” Steinberg says.

 

Even if he’s not Jordanesque, Woods does carefully manage his image for marketability, as Steinberg counsels all his clients to do. “You shouldn’t be fake and plastic, but you need to be cognizant of how you present yourself,” he says. And that doesn’t just apply to athletes, such as Woods and Sorenstam, in individual sports. “There are NBA guys who could be as big a star as [Los Angeles Laker guard] Kobe Bryant if they acted like Kobe Bryant.”

 

Steinberg played basketball himself, including a year on the team at the University of Illinois, his undergraduate and law school alma mater. But he ended up as a golfers’ agent because that’s where IMG needed someone when he finished law school.

 

“I learned on the LPGA tour, which was a great place to learn. You’re not talking big dollars, and 12 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of exposure for the athletes themselves, so the mistakes weren’t amplified or magnified.”

 

He teamed up with Woods when the golfer was on the verge of dumping IMG. “In the middle of 1998, Tiger had a falling out with his current agent. We couldn’t afford to lose him for a number of reasons – appearance reasons, financial reasons. I was fortunate enough to be selected to get to know him and figure out if this was going to work. We had a trial period of three months, and here I am five years later still representing Tiger.”

 

And Sorenstam, who for this week at least, is the bigger star.

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