McIlroy moving into area once dominated by Woods

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Rory McIlroy is about to hit the jackpot.

With news of McIlroy’s mega endorsement deal with Nike expected to become official shortly, a deal reportedly worth more than $200 million over 10 years, the 23-year-old rising star from Northern Ireland pushes farther onto a stage Tiger Woods once dominated.

McIlroy isn’t just crowding Woods’ work space with his two record-setting major championship runaways the last two years and with his rise to No. 1 in the world, he’s now barging into the premium marketing space that Woods once ruled over as the game’s most valuable commodity.

It’s another sign that McIlroy is poised to become a true rival to Woods.

McIlroy’s potential allegiance with Nike spawns a lot of questions about how the game’s landscape may be changing. How will the switch from Titleist to Nike affect McIlroy’s game? Will there be a drop off as McIlroy acclimates himself to new equipment? How will the transition affect his confidence? How will all that money affect his desire?

But the most important question may not be about McIlroy at all.

How would this new deal affect Woods?

When reports first emerged that McIlroy was preparing to join Nike, speculation followed that the move wouldn't be good for Woods. The Chicago Sun-Times ran this headline with a story last week: “Rory McIlroy poses big threat to Tiger Woods with move to Nike.” The story’s analysis laid out the potential move this way: “Besides passing Woods in the world golf rankings, McIlroy is threatening to take away Tiger’s death grip on Nike.”

That, however, isn’t necessarily the way industry analysts see the Nike dynamic unfolding.

More than one sports marketplace expert sees Woods ultimately winning something valuable in this, too.

“It’s a positive rub for Rory, Tiger and Nike,” says Bill Marshall, president of South Florida-based Team Marketing. “Tiger Woods is still the cornerstone of golf, regardless who Nike signs. He is still the Empire State Building in the city of golf. Whether you love Tiger or hate him, he still moves the needle in golf like no one else. He is still Nike, there’s no question about that, and the fact that Nike is enhancing its talent pool is complementary to Tiger. In appearing to be the future of golf, McIlroy is a good choice to complement Tiger.”

Industry analysts expect Nike to build on an emerging dynamic relationship between Woods and McIlroy that will serve Woods’ interests as his image continues to evolve in the marketplace.

“In many respects, this is a slow passing of the torch,” says Scott Becher, executive vice president of Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Zimmerman Advertising. “Rory helps contemporize Nike in reaching a younger golf audience, but he can also, if used together with Tiger, help soften Tiger’s image for Nike.”

McIlroy ranks very high in likeability in the measurement of Q Scores, a metric that Marketing Evaluations Inc. developed to measure target audience reactions to athletes, celebrities, brands and licensed properties. Basically, Q Scores rank awareness and appeal based on surveys.

News that Nike has already teamed Woods and McIlroy together in a commercial to air next year points to a strategy that is lauded by industry experts contacted by GolfChannel.com. They like the charisma these two players create together.

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” says Rick Horrow, CEO of Horrow Sports Ventures and sports business analyst for Fox Sports and CNN. “For Rory, it’s an acknowledgment that he is the next great thing. For Tiger, he may get a likeability bump by being affiliated with a positive personality in a playful, human way.”

In his life post-scandal, Woods has become a polarizing figure in the marketplace, a phenomenon that continues to evolve. Though all you have to do is scroll down to reader comments on any web story about Woods to see just how polarizing he is, Q Scores measure the phenomenon.

Before crashing his SUV into his neighbor’s yard near the end of 2009, Woods garnered a 44 Q Score.

“His Q Score was the strongest among active athletes, by far,” says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations. “He was just behind the iconic Michael Jordan, who with a Q Score of 50 still has ridiculously high scores in retirement.”

Today, Woods’ primary Q score today is 24, still the highest among active golfers. McIlroy’s primary Q Score is 17, third among active golfers behind Mickelson (23) and Woods.

Notably, Woods’ negative Q Score, a measurement of the negative assessment fans have toward him, climbed after the scandal from 15 – favorably below average – to 39, by far the highest negative reaction among golfers.

Basically, Woods’ scores show people have a strong reaction to him, one way or another.

“Tiger, despite his woes on and off the course, remains popular, but he also is still a very polarizing figure today,” Schafer said. “His negative Q Score assessment has been higher than his positive for a long time now. That’s what is holding him back in the marketplace.”

But that’s where Nike’s Tiger/Rory packaging can benefit both players.

“Where Tiger may get a trustworthiness bump, Rory gets an awareness bump,” Horrow said.

Woods is a household name, known around the world by folks who don’t know a birdie from a bogey. McIlroy doesn’t cross over like that yet.

“Without Tiger, there is no interest in golf, in terms of viewer interest,” Schafer said.

Partnered with Woods in Nike commercials, McIlroy can reach a broader audience.

“I have to think Nike will use them together, and that they will be interacting with each other,” Becher said. “That is one plus one equals three for Nike.”

That formula would depend on continuing good chemistry between Woods and McIlroy, and also on their ability to continue to push each other competitively as the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world.

“Nike has laid this out and thought it over very intelligently,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor who specializes in sports at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. “There’s a synergy between these two players. At this point, they help each other. I’m sure their handlers have very carefully figured this out. It’s not by accident that this is going on. I’m sure a lot of time was spent figuring out exactly how to do this.”

The McIlroy-Woods friendship is part of a transition in Woods’ public persona this last year. There have been glimpses of an evolving man that doesn’t go undetected by a discriminating sports marketplace.

While skeptics may now see ulterior motives for Woods befriending McIlroy, the appearance of genuine mutual admiration helps shape Woods’ image. So does Woods appearing more open and engaging with fellow tour pros.

South Africa’s Branden Grace, nervously playing for the first time with Woods through the first three rounds of the WGC-Bridgestone in August, raved about the experience. “Tiger is pretty much the nicest guy I’ve ever played with,” Grace said. At the PGA Championship, Woods stunned long-time observers saying he tried to lighten up while paired with Vijay Singh. At Medinah, Woods didn’t just say he took responsibility for American Ryder Cup failures before the competition began, he apologized to American rookies for failing them when it was over.

Woods’ image, integral to his marketability, still comes with challenges.

Woods came off as narcissistic, arrogant, cheap, cold and entitled in portions of Hank Haney’s book “The Big Miss,” though he also came off as admirably determined and dedicated to excellence. There was an edgy interaction over questions about Haney’s book at The Honda Classic, but, overall, Woods is consistently professional in his media encounters.

The McIlroy-Woods Nike union is seen by experts as potentially another positive step in the evolution of Woods as he moves into the second phase of his career.

“It is beneficial for Tiger Woods,” Zimbalist says. “If you were asking me about this Nike deal five years ago, I would be scratching my head and asking, `Why would Tiger Woods want to share the stage?’ But because of what happened in his personal life, with his golf game not being what it was, Tiger fell off the stage. This is an opportunity for Tiger, I don’t think there’s any question about it. I also think it is part of the image he is trying to create since he came out of the hospital after the accident.

“At this point, it’s fair to say Tiger is past his peak. That is not to say he’s going to decline rapidly, but his period of ascendance and domination is not what it used to be. To have somebody who is rising up, somebody who is not only a tremendous competitor, like Rory McIlroy, but somebody who is good-looking and has charisma and appeal, for Tiger to be able to hook his wagon up to McIlroy, that’s a positive for Tiger.”

Zimbalist believes Woods will look good sharing a stage with McIlroy.

“If part of his image now, instead of standing by himself and promoting Nike products, if it’s doing it with somebody else by his side, that is portraying a Tiger who is now more relationally oriented,” Zimbalist said.

That makes Woods a different man in the marketplace.