I cleared the TSA screening at LAX at about 5AM one day last week. I dragged my disassembled gear over to the bench. (Thank you, LAX. Not every airport provides a place to sit down and perform this ritual.) I tied my shoes and patted every pocket to make certain that the Huckleberry, keys, boarding pass, wallet, glasses, pens and everything else were where they should be.
On the wall behind me I spotted a current staple of airport advertising. The poster depicted Tiger Woods contemplating some impossible lie in an underwater sand trap surrounded by ravenous hyenas with vultures circling overhead, while Queen Elizabeth, the Dalai Lama and someone who might’ve been Desmond Tutu looked on (I might not have remembered all these details precisely).
The caption read something like, “Now what will you do?”
I laughed and pointed out this wonderful irony to my colleague, and she laughed, too. We know something about the vagaries of corporate sponsorship. For seven years, our company sponsored one of the world’s best professional cycling teams. “Our” team consistently won some of the most important cycling competitions, including multiple results as the top team in the Tour de France. Our riders included some of the great stars in the sport. It was exciting to be associated with those world-class performers and their equally outstanding management. There was, however, also a downside to the involvement with cycling, as revelations of consistent use of performance-enhancing substances dimmed some perceptions of the achievements of the riders.
A woman sitting near us on that LAX bench heard our comments on the irony of the advertisement. She said, “Imagine how I feel. That’s the company I work for.” We shook our heads. We could certainly empathize with this woman, having heard our share of disparaging comments about the allegations against the cycling pros. (However, this empathy was somewhat mitigated by the fact that her company is also one of our firm’s biggest competitors).
Linking a corporation’s image with an athlete or team is fraught with risk. We knew that long ago. Mr. Woods’ current situation and that of his many sponsors opens again the question of whether performance on the field matters more than or less than personal behavior. Certainly my company got lots of press when one of our riders was competing for the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, and it was a media heyday when one of them stood on that top step of the podium on the Champs Elysees holding the trophy aloft. We also got a lot of media coverage when allegations of performance enhancement swirled around this or that rider. Having seen the pros and cons of it with our cycling sponsorship, I know that it can be a great motivator for the employees of a company to be identified with a winning team. There’s the chance to follow them on television and the press and, sometimes, a chance to watch them in person or meet them at events. And it’s a wonderful medium of contact with clients and prospects and shareholders. Everyone loves a winner.
And, as we’ve seen recently, everyone is fascinated to distraction when an icon cracks.
My firm discontinued its sponsorship of cycling last year as it made some shifts in the focus of the marketing and branding efforts. I miss the opportunity to feel the direct connection with that sport and its people from slightly inside the ropes. I miss the great days I was able to spend with a video crew shooting footage of the team, or interviewing them as they talked about their season. There are a couple of team caps on my top shelf, signed by winners of the Tour de France. But it’s a business, not a fan club here. In numerous companies right now, there are extremely serious discussions about whether to continue their sponsorship of a certain golfer, or any golfer, or maybe switch to NASCAR or Professional Putt-Putt Golf.
Just remember, when you see that NASCAR champion leaping out of the winning car and pouring the sponsor’s beverage or hand lotion or motor oil over their heads, it’s a business, and that is a business professional wearing all those logos. Somebody made the decision to pay to see that label turned toward the camera in victory lane. Athletes aren’t heroes unless we turn them into heroes. But they’re always business people, and if they make poor decisions, it is an integral part of what is meant by “performance,” even if certain behaviors do not occur on the field of play.