Last year, Tiger Woods raised the bar into the clouds on the golf course. Over the past five years, he hasn't just raised the bar for endorsements; he's hung it on the international space station.
Remember Tiger's 'Hello World' debut in late August 1996? He signed a deal with Nike then that was said to be worth about $37.5 million over five years, at a time when few, if any, players were getting more than $2 million or $3 million per year from any one source.
Before that deal was up but after Tiger had shown beyond any doubt that he is the Real Deal, Nike gave him a five-year contract extension worth a potential $100 million.
That tide may float some other yachts, but some high-ranking industry executives see a downside. They fear we may have entered the era of (to use baseball's term) the market adjustment.
Take this David Duval-Titleist lawsuit. Duval left Titleist to endorse Nike products, even though he still had three years left in a five-year deal with Titleist. The reason, say sources close to International Management Group, Duval's handlers, was that Titleist reneged on a promise to feature Duval as the premier player on its staff once Woods had departed for Nike.
Of course, with the matter in litigation, Charley Moore, Duval's agent at IMG, won't confirm whether there was a clause in Duval's agreement allowing Duval to leave in that situation. But the existence of such an out or a 'marquee player promise,' in whatever form, is said to be a crucial issue in the case.
The idea of an escape provision came up in discussions between Titleist and Moore some months after Duval had agreed to his new deal in August 1998, say sources close to the situation. Titleist didn't mind this sort of clause in principle, said a source close to that company. Letters were exchanged on the issue, but Titleist says such a clause never became part of the Duval agreement.
But Titleist has claimed in its lawsuit that Duval - or rather his agents - tried to use that 'marquee player' gambit to exit his agreement early because Nike was in the mood to spend lots of endorsement money, and IMG wanted some of it.
The courts will decide if that's true, along with a bunch of other claims. (For example, why would Titleist spend $500,000 on a commercial with Duval last October if they weren't planning to make him a top endorser, asked one Titleist exec. IMG sources say there was no Duval-only commercial shoot, and certainly not for that kind of money.)
Of course, IMG denies Titleist's allegation. It also won't buy the theory that it was looking for a market adjustment for Duval in light of the money Tiger was getting. IMG sources also deny that the agency was jealous of the deal Titleist made to keep Davis Love III, who had been courted by Nike last year. The parties were characteristically close-mouthed about the numbers, but sources say Love got nearly $50 million for 10 years to stick with Titleist, and Duval was getting about $4.5 million for the first two years of a five-year deal.
IMG representatives have said that it's not just about money; it's about relationships. Indeed, sources say that Duval is not getting any more money at Nike than he did at Titleist. And we know he won't be the marquee swoosh-wearer.
Any of this sound familiar? A-Rod gets the gross national product of Liechtenstein. Jeter wants his piece, Nomar and Frank Thomas want theirs.and on and on. OK, golf endorsements don't approach the insane magnitude of baseball salaries. But one ranking industry executive has confirmed that since the Duval conflict arose, his company has received letters from players' agents essentially requesting early exits if their clients are not to be used as 'flagship' or 'marquee' players.
Agents have to do what's best for their clients. But a deal's a deal, right? That's true whether we're talking about the number of years in it or an escape clause from it.
Things have gotten so bad in baseball that some people see it as only slightly trustworthier than post-Watergate government. Many observers first reacted to news of Rodriguez's 10-year, $250 million deal with the quip, 'No way he'll stay for 10 years.' Baseball players are just expected to jump toward opportunity, no matter what the signed paper says.
With the parties so circumspect, we can't know for sure what David Duval and Titleist were trying to do. The outcome of their lawsuit will, it is hoped, reveal the parties' intentions. Duval has said that will happen.
But what about those other agents who wrote those early-exit-if-my-guy's-not-the-lead-dog letters?
If those letters are indeed out there, and if they say what they're purported to say in conflict with an agreement, let's hope they get filed where they deserve to be.