Tiger Woods' sponsors stand by their man

Endorsers of the golfing great say they aren't changing their relationships with Tiger Woods and experts don't think he stands to lose much from his recent car crash.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Tiger Woods has gained the backing of his sponsors after a recent car crash raised questions about his character.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The sponsors that have made Tiger Woods the richest athlete in the world are sticking with the golfing great, despite rumors swirling around his early-morning car crash on Friday.

Woods' major endorsers, including Nike, Gatorade and Gillette, lined up on Monday to state their support for the golf great.

"Tiger and his family have Nike's full support," Nike (NKE, Fortune 500) said in a statement. "We respect Tiger's request for privacy and our thoughts are with Tiger and his family at this time."

"We wish Tiger well as he recovers and look forward to seeing him back on the course soon," Gatorade said in a statement. "Our partnership with Tiger continues."

Gillette said it has not changed its marketing strategy because of the incident, but the company wouldn't comment on any future plans. Other major sponsors, including AT&T (T, Fortune 500), American Express (AXP, Fortune 500) and Tag Heuer, were unavailable for immediate comment.

In September, Tiger Woods became the first athlete to earn $1 billion in a career, according to Forbes. Though his winnings on the golf course have netted him tens of millions of dollars a year ($23 million in 2008), his endorsements have more than quadrupled his earnings on the PGA tour. Sports Illustrated reported that Woods earned $105 million from sponsorship deals last year -- more than double any other athlete in the world.

Woods has been the most successful athlete-sponsor in history because of his impeccable character, according to Marc Ganis, a sports marketing consultant with SportsCorp Ltd.

"This is a man who has carried himself exceptionally well while being in the intense glare of the media spotlight for his entire adult life," Ganis said. "He has had tremendous credibility with the public, media and his sponsors, and he singularly is why golf is still in the public consciousness in the United States."

Muted fallout. Speculation surrounding the car crash could mar Tiger's otherwise spotless public image, but marketing experts say it's too soon to tell.

Because the crash did not involve driving under the influence or injury to other people, Woods is likely in the clear with his partners since those are the types of issues that could pose problems for advertisers, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for Baker Street Advertising.

At about 2:25 a.m. ET on Friday, Woods pulled out of his driveway in Windermere, Fla., in a 2009 Cadillac SUV and struck a fire hydrant, then a tree, according to an incident report from the Florida Highway Patrol in Orange County. Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren, told the police she was inside the house when she heard the accident. She said she went outside and used a golf club to break out the rear window of the vehicle, then pulled him from the SUV.

Last week, a story in the National Enquirer claimed Woods had been seeing a New York nightclub hostess. The woman denied any affair with Woods, according to the Associated Press.

"The many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible," Woods said in a statement Sunday afternoon on his Web site.

Waiting for the dust to settle. Sports marketing experts say that any sponsorship fallout will depend on how the news plays out.

"This isn't just [Olympic swimming gold medallist] Michael Phelps smoking pot, this is a family man who is constantly in the limelight," said Steve Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations. "Family matters much more to advertisers than a single guy smoking a joint."

But the majority of endorsement analysts believed that Woods was in no danger of losing any sponsorships, even if the most salacious of the rumors are true.

"Tiger is the most successful athlete endorser ever, so you would think that the Madison Avenue folks would be forgiving," said Dorfman. "Can you name an athlete that hasn't had an affair? It would have to be much worse than that to lose sponsors."

The only likely impact for Woods and his endorsers is short term, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Woods said Monday that he would not play in the Chevron World Challenge, slated to start on Tuesday at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "I am extremely disappointed that I will not be at my tournament this week," he said on his Web site, citing injuries sustained during the crash.

Both Woods and his sponsors stand to lose some money by his pulling out of the tournament. Advertisers may also opt to pull some of their ads for a short while but the long-term impact is expected to be minimal at this point.

"Brands that planned to use Tiger in any meaningful way in the next few weeks would be looking to perhaps do something else, both out of respect for Tiger and because now isn't the best time to have him out there peddling their product," Swangard said.

-- CNN wires contributed to this report To top of page

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