Here we go again: Big star tells Cleveland operation he is taking his talents to, well, we don't know where. Unlike Lebron James, when he told the world he was taking his talents to South Beach and leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, the departure of Tiger Woods from Cleveland based-IMG has no specific landing point, except that it will be wherever Mark Steinberg ends up.
The decision by Woods to remain with Steinberg, his longtime agent who was let go by IMG on May 24, comes as no surprise to anyone, including IMG. The global management giant knew that would be the case when they showed Steinberg the door and were willing to live with that consequence. The truth of the matter is that Woods and IMG owner Ted Fortsmann were never close and that relationship frayed even more in the wake of the scandal that began Nov. 27, 2009, when Woods ended up hospitalized after injuries in a mysterious late-night car crash.
Less than two weeks after Steinberg and IMG parted ways, Woods posted a tweet on June 6 saying: "Staying with Mark Steinberg. Total confidence in him. Excited about the next stage in my professional life. Fond memories of Mark McCormack." The fact that McCormack is mentioned and Fortsmann is not is worth noting. The two questions left hanging are these: Will Woods and Steinberg land with another agency or go off on their own?; and when -- or if -- Woods will be able to once again attract Tiger-like endorsement money?
Since the Woods sex scandal broke, he has lost four major endorsement deals and a fifth was a victim of the recession. According to the Golf Digest 50 All-Encompassing Money List, Woods earned $48 million less in 2010 than he did a year earlier. Even when you are still making in excess of $70 million a year, making him the world's highest-paid athlete, that's still a big pay cut. The fact Woods is approaching two years without a PGA Tour win coupled with the questions about the health of his left knee and Achilles makes it even more difficult to gauge his current market value.
The smart money is still saying Steinberg will end up with Creative Artists Agency, the A-list Hollywood star agency that made a move to get into sports in 2006, raiding IMG of both clients and staff. Among the former IMG executives who ended up cashing a CAA paycheck are Andy Pierce, who was head of corporate consulting at IMG, and Bob Kain, who was once IMG president and CEO. Among the former IMG clients at CAA are baseball star Derek Jeter and football icon Peyton Manning.
Just last week, CAA hired former USGA chief business officer Peter Bevacqua "to develop new business opportunities domestically and internationally," according to a release by the company. One of the clients he will be working with is Royal Bank of Scotland, which was once represented by IMG but is now with CAA. Steinberg and Bevacqua have known each other for years and are said to have a strong personal and professional relationship. The fact Bevacqua has landed with CAA could mean Steinberg will follow.
The compelling question is when Woods will start replacing his lost endorsement deals. In November, Steinberg told Golf Digest there were three deals in the works, including one for Woods' bag, which has carried the logo of the Tiger Woods Nike brand since AT&T bailed on him last year. Still, Woods has signed no new endorsement contracts since the scandal broke.
Whoever is the first company to sign a new deal with Woods will get a lot of attention, not all of it positive. But there will surely be firms willing to take the risk. Woods remains one of the best-known names in the world and if he gets back to his winning ways on the golf course it would be an incredibly compelling -- and marketable -- story of redemption and recovery.
We were reminded of the excitement Woods creates when he shot 31 on the front nine of the final round at this year's Masters and briefly led the tournament. If Woods should make a run at the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 professional majors -- he needs five more to break that mark -- it will draw massive media attention and provide a powerful advertising platform for his business partners.
In the old days, the price to get in the door for a Woods' endorsement deal was a five-year contract at $5 million a year. Many of his deals were worth more than that. Steinberg most likely has had offers for less money than that and perhaps from not the top-tier companies they have always signed with. Clearly, he's waiting for Tiger's value to return.
This is one of those stories where it's difficult to figure out who is manipulating whom. On the surface, IMG fired Steinberg and Woods decided to stick with the guy who knows more about him than anyone else in his professional life. Yet there are those who not only believe in Woods -- and his ability to once again be a dominant golfer -- but also value highly the shrewdness of Steinberg.
Some in that camp wonder if it's possible Steinberg orchestrated his departure and that he has a couple of new endorsement deals for Woods squirreled away in his back pocket and will sign those contracts when he and Woods land somewhere else. That would certainly add a fascinating new twist to a story that has been providing twist after twist for almost 20 months.
And if that should happen with Woods and Steinberg ending up under the CAA umbrella, that would further intensify what is quickly becoming one of the most intense rivalries in sports -- the L.A.-based CAA and the Cleveland-based IMG. There are certainly more twists ahead for this story.
-- Ron Sirak
(Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)