* Lost up to $35 mln in annual sponsorship revenue
* Hasn’t won golf tournament since accident
* Golf TV viewer numbers off 21 pct on weekends-Nielsen
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has been hitting from the rough all year, dogged by a sex scandal combined with no wins on the golf greens, a divorce and the defection of several top corporate sponsors.
A year after an early-morning auto accident led to revelations of marital infidelities, the world’s former top golfer is trying to turn the page on his troubles.
Woods wants consumers and sponsors to give him a second chance, and the PGA Tour, suffering from lower TV viewer numbers without a dominant Tiger, hopes he gets just that.
“No athlete has dropped so far, so fast in likability, trustworthiness and appeal,” said Rick Horrow, a sports lecturer at Harvard Law School.
“Two years ago, the tour got used to dealing with life without Tiger because of injury,” he added. “This last year, it was not life without Tiger, but life with a negative Tiger.”
In the latest Davie Brown Index, used by corporate clients to determine a celebrity’s ability to influence consumers, Woods’ appeal ranked 2,586th, down from 96th pre-scandal.
That puts him in the company of baseball home run king Barry Bonds, who has dealt with accusations of performance-enhancing drug use, and scandal-ridden actor Mel Gibson. Before the accident around last Thanksgiving outside his Florida home, Woods was in the same category as actor Matt Damon and the late crooner Frank Sinatra.
A few titles would help Woods, who has slipped to No. 2 in the world rankings after no victories this year, win back consumers and interest new sponsors, analysts said.
Many analysts now believe that Woods, who finalized his divorce this summer, will never regain his former standing among fans who made him the world’s richest athlete.
“To attain a level of adoration, fame, fortune and everything that goes with it will be difficult because there will always be that blemish,” said Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment, which matches companies with celebrities for endorsements.
Consumers certainly have a mixed view of the star athlete.
In a Seton Hall sports poll on Thursday, 40 percent of respondents reacted unfavorably to Woods, while 39 percent viewed him favorably.
“Forty percent unfavorable for Tiger clearly shows work to be done on his image,” said Rick Gentile, director of the Seton Hall Sports Poll. “But knowing the American capacity for forgiveness and how winning can turn people’s opinions around, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few early-season wins tip this in a more favorable direction.”
Companies are watching closely, as they care how he reflects on their products and services. His troubles led such firms as AT&T (T.N) and Accenture (ACN.N) to end sponsorship deals, costing him up to $35 million in annual revenue.
Woods is reaching out to fans with a new Twitter account and other media appearances. “It’s about time that I made a connection to the fans who have been absolutely incredible to me over the past year,” he told ESPN Radio on Thursday.
The private Woods may need to be more open, however. The popular sports blog Deadspin dubbed his ESPN appearance “the most boring interview of all time.”
Don’t cry for Woods, however, as he still is paid more than $60 million annually by Nike (NKE.N), Electronic Arts ERTS.O, Procter & Gamble’s (PG.N) Gillette, Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRKa.N) NetJets unit, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s (LVMH.PA) Tag Heuer, Upper Deck and TLC Laser Vision Centers.
EA Sports just rolled out a golf game on Facebook that does not carry Woods’ name like their console video game. Officials said that was planned and Tiger remains valuable to them.
“The Tiger Woods brand will continue as the flagship of our award-winning golf franchise,” Andrew Wilson, EA Sports senior vice president of worldwide development, said in an email.
And Woods said earlier this month that several Chinese companies were eyeing deals with him.
The PGA Tour and golf would certainly welcome the return of the old Tiger, as his dominance led to a growing fan base, high TV ratings, and financially lucrative advertising and sponsorship deals.
“One hundred percent, golf needs Tiger Woods more than anything,” Shabelman said.
The average audience of Saturday and Sunday PGA Tour golf telecasts on broadcast networks has declined 21 percent to almost 2.8 million viewers this year, according to Nielsen.
“Tiger’s still a draw when he plays, but frankly until he starts winning again he’s just another golfer,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now head of his own sports consulting firm. “I don’t think there’s much mileage in Tiger Woods anymore finishing 12 strokes off the pace.” (Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit, editing by Dave Zimmerman)