When discussing Tiger Woods’ fall from grace following revelations of extramarital hanky-panky, the American media make a point of distinguishing his talent from his newly soiled image. Whatever his sins, these media say, they can’t take away from his accomplishments on the golf links. However, the damage to his image can have an affect on the game itself.
Forbes magazine estimates that Woods has made $1 billion since turning pro, most of it earned through endorsements. Of course, endorsements for athletes are predicated on performance, but image is nevertheless central to an advertiser’s purposes. Most endorsement contracts contain escape clauses for advertisers if the spokesperson is involved in a scandal.
Undoubtedly, Woods’ carefully maintained image of integrity went far to help him rack up the 13 sponsors that were supporting him when his SUV had that unfortunate encounter with the fire hydrant Thanksgiving Day night, and so far he’s been dropped by at least two of them. This list may grow once contract renewal time comes around.
Another important aspect of the scandal is its effect on the golf industry, since Woods’ participation in a given tournament guarantees sponsors and boosts TV ratings. This aspect provides a striking parallel with Japan’s own golf wiz, 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa. Professor Masahiro Miyamoto of Kansai University calculates that Ishikawa’s contribution to the Japanese economy has amounted to ¥34.1 billion since he turned pro in 2006. Japanese TV ratings for men’s golf tournaments that do not feature Ishikawa usually average around 6 percent. When he plays, the ratings shoot up to 16. In terms of sponsors he even outguns Woods: He has 20 right now.
Ishikawa’s talents are proven by the fact that he was the top money earner on the Japanese tour in 2009, but his popularity is burnished by an image that transcends ability. A representative of advertising giant Dentsu told the Asahi Shimbun that Ishikawa appeals to young and old, men and women, golf fans and people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a putter. Consequently, men’s golf is enjoying its greatest popularity in years. Prior to 2006, the average size of a gallery at a major Japanese men’s tournament was about 10,000 people. Since Ishikawa arrived, it’s increased to 24,000.
The problem is that sponsors tend to prefer Ishikawa to golf in general, which means if he isn’t playing in a tournament it’s difficult for the tournament to get backing. In the mid-1980s there were 47 men’s golf tournaments a year. Now there’re only 24. Last month, when Ishikawa and veteran golfer Yuta Ikeda were neck-and-neck in the prize money race, coverage of the Nippon Series JT Cup focused only on them, even though both were at the bottom of the 27-man field. When Shigeki Maruyama won the tournament, the only questions he was asked by reporters were about Ishikawa. So while Ishikawa has stimulated golf immeasurably, he’s done so in a lopsided manner. This focus has put immense pressure on him. He has announced he will forgo university and play in all 24 tournaments next year, thus acknowledging how much the sport depends on him. His mother has confessed that she’s afraid he is already burned out.
In order to get a better grasp of how important Ichikawa’s image is to the economic health of golf, it’s instructive to look at his opposite number in Japanese sports, boxer Koki Kameda. Whereas Ishikawa is young, handsome, well-bred and articulate, Kameda is young, coarse-looking, common and vulgar.
When Kameda fought Daisuke Naito on Nov. 29 for the WBC flyweight championship, TBS, which broadcast the bout, enjoyed an average rating share of 40.1 percent. Near the end of the fight, the share was as high as 51 percent. Because of the buildup to the event, everyone knew the ratings would be high, but still TBS had a tough time attracting sponsors. The biggest they got was Sankyo, a manufacturer of pachinko machines.
Ever since Naito beat Kameda’s brother, Daiki, in 2007 for the title, the fortunes of the three Kameda boxing brothers and their father, Shiro, have dived. With their arrogant demeanor, the Kamedas were once sponsor magnets, but after Daiki lost badly to Naito the arrogance seemed to many people a front for something less entertaining. Consequently, the family has spent the last two years trying to change its image, seemingly to no avail. Prior to the fight, Koki reportedly even donned suit and tie to drum up sponsors himself. In addition to more than one pachinko-related business he also managed to attract a marriage-counseling agency, but no major companies.
The Kamedas’ fall was not only bad for their own situation, it was bad for Japanese boxing. Naito is well liked, but boxing requires a kind of flamboyance he can’t bring and which the Kamedas provided in spades even if their showmanship was crude. But once the well was poisoned, that was it. Koki beat Naito, but that doesn’t mean future fights will draw the same kind of TV audience. People tuned in to see a Kameda get his butt whipped. They may not return to see him defend his title.
The point is that whichever image you cultivate it needs to be scrupulously maintained. Sumo champion Asashoryu’s bad boy persona was successfully exploited by Coca Cola in its clever campaign for Fanta soft drinks, where he appeared as a threatening-looking junior high school student who turned out to be “a nice person in reality.”
The Fuji TV variety show “Junk Sports” played this paradox up a few weeks ago. For days prior to the broadcast, previews promised “Asashoryu weeping on camera.” As it happened, the tears didn’t flow until the very last moments of the two-hour special when his mother appeared in a videotaped message from Mongolia. Not fair. Even tough guys lose it when it comes to mom.