Here's a wicked little social experiment for the next time you find yourself on the driving range at a PGA Tour event: Stand on one end of the facility and within earshot of Tour types – players, caddies, agents, equipment reps, etc. – casually drop a hot little rumor in their direction. Then sit back and watch as it trickles down the range, concluding at the other end with the words and message distorted like that old whisper-down-the-lane children’s game.
This exercise isn't meant to paint the world's best golfers – and their entourages – as gossip hounds. It's simply human nature to want to pass along juicy information to the next guy and invariably common for that information to be misinterpreted the further it travels.
All of which leads us to those persistent Rory McIlroy-to-Nike rumors, which have already traveled thousands of miles around the globe as part of one giant game of whisper-down-the-lane.
In this instance, the communication process may mirror that of the driving range experiment, its message twisted and distorted with each whisper. Or maybe it’s come through crystal clear, passed from one messenger to the next with astonishingly unhindered aplomb.
Here is what we do know: Speculation is running rampant that McIlroy will soon sign a 10-year/$250 million contract to adorn the conspicuous swoosh logo.
Here is what we don’t know: Everything.
Despite the worldwide gossip, there are really only three parties with inside knowledge of any potential deal and possible negotiations – Camp McIlroy, Camp Nike and Camp Titleist, his current equipment sponsor. Unlike a player in another sport leaving through free agency, Rory must also negotiate through the manufacturer with whom he’s currently under contract. And – surprise, surprise – none of them are talking right now, not even enough to lend credence to the rumors.
“I have my management company deal with endorsements and everything like that,” McIlroy said prior to this week’s BMW Masters. “I’m just here to concentrate on golf this week, and I’ve got enough to think about trying to get that ball in the hole. So no further comment on that.”
As for Nike, a spokesperson maintained via email that, “We are not going to comment on rumors or speculation.”
There’s plenty of speculation to not be commented on, too. For months, the Internet message boards have been buzzing with conjecture about McIlroy joining Woods in Nike’s stable, with mainstream media outlets quickly joining in the race to make such a connection.
Since then, every little inner machination involving one or both has developed into some sort of signal that it’s going to happen, according to the conspiracy theorists. Tiger and Rory turn their friendship into a full-blown bromance? Must be because the former is trying to recruit the latter. Nike drops its longtime sponsorship of Lance Armstrong in the wake of his banishment from professional cycling? Must be because it's freeing up more cash for McIlroy.
There's an old axiom which easily speaks to such flammable situations: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In other words, if there was nothing to this speculation, it probably wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.
Even this theory, though, can be debated in the current scenario.
In recent weeks, I’ve spoken with multiple industry insiders who claim that McIlroy-to-Nike is a done deal, they’re just waiting for the ink to dry while his management team ties up loose ends with prior sponsorship obligations. I’ve also spoken with multiple industry insiders who claim that much like a benign fender-bender, we should move along because there’s nothing to see here, these sources steadfast in their contention that a deal is not imminent.
Whom should we believe? Well, those with the most information, of course. The only problem is that those with the most information – Camp McIlroy, Camp Nike and Camp Titleist, remember – are also the ones who aren’t talking, leading to a vicious cycle of nothingness, the proverbial dog chasing its tail.
It leaves the rest speculating about rumors and gossip, reluctant pawns in a game of whisper-down-the-lane that has transfixed a global golf community hungry for answers. Sometimes the process can yield the correct result at the other end of the line, but with so many rampant hypotheses, it’s important to remember that miscommunication and misinterpretation are often a major factor in this game.