This weekend, in the stupid media hyped aftermath of the NBA’s James signing with the Miami Heat, the USA Today reported that James, 25, “hopes to become a $1 billion brand, a la Tiger Woods.”
I admittedly do not care much for basketball, and don’t follow the sport closely, but nonetheless I can Guarantee you – with a capital G – that LeBron James will never reach anywhere near the branding pinnacle that Tiger Woods did, certainly before his sex scandal, and probably won’t even get to where Tiger still is now, turning down eight figure offers for his name.
The first thing to consider is that Tiger Wood is not an example of the one billion dollar athlete – he is THE example, the only one in any sport, ever, including His Airness, Michael Jordan, to crack this platinum ceiling. Billion dollar athletes do not grow on trees – in the history of sport, Earl Woods raised the only one.
Most of Woods’ income comes from endorsements, the Holy Grail of the celebrity athlete and for this, golf is a unique platform for brand building in that it is the most popular non-team sport, and the popularity of golfers is not subject to geography or media markets. While James may well become the dominant sports figure in Miami, he is already the most hated one in the Midwest – a team player can never please the country because the team has rivals, and these rivalries go as deep as religious grudges. Plenty of people are mad at Tiger for his extramarital affairs, but to date, no one is burning his Nike shirts in effigy, unlike, say, LeBron. A golfer can appeal to every section of the country and has no inherent geographic limitations on his or her fan base. The only sports similar in this regard would be tennis, swimming, gymnastics and so on, and none are nearly as popular as golf.
The more obvious difference between the two, and reason for Woods’ unprecedented success, is his unprecedented winning. America loves a winner, and no one wins like Tiger Woods. LeBron James is way, way down on that no one list. In the seven years LeBron has played in the NBA he has won precisely nothing of importance. Seven years ago, Tiger was busy becoming the first player in history to win Player of the Year five times in a row, and the first player to win the Byron Nelson and Vardon trophies for low scoring average yep, you guessed it, five years in a row.
Tiger Woods has spent most of the same seven year period in which LeBron sputtered and came up short as the number one ranked player on earth, and in fact broke both records for total weeks at number one and consecutive weeks at number one while LeBron went home year after year to watch the NBA Finals on TV. In the past seven years Tiger won 30 PGA tournaments, including 4 Majors, 9 World Golf Championship events, the TOUR Championship, the season long FedEx Cup championship and countless non-PGA sanctioned events. Along the way he continued to break numerous longstanding golf records, large and small.
In short, Tiger did not get to be a billion dollar brand by losing. In fact, his winning percentage in events entered is far higher than anyone in golf history, and until recently, he was synonymous with winning to the point that his very entry in a tournament caused other players to give up hope. By comparison, LeBron’s entry in the NBA Championships in his last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers caused a motley group of Celtics underdogs to get fired up and make him look stupid – to the point where his own team owner accused him of quitting and mailing it in. Think what you may about Tiger Woods, one thing he has never been accused of is trying anything less than his hardest to win.
The final issue is that Tiger may no longer be the billion dollar brand he once was, with sponsors jumping ship after his numerous affairs made headlines, and coincidentally, he hasn’t won since. While I predict he will go back to his winning ways, probably this very weekend at St. Andrews to take yet another Major, and all will return to relative normalcy in Tiger’s world, what his hiccup shows is that after winning, the most important thing in becoming a billion dollar brand is respect and likeability. The reason people were so shocked by Tiger’s affairs in a world where athletes and celebrities do what he did all the time is that he had public trust, was thought to be a serious and upstanding young man who carried himself with dignity, which made the scandal all the more disappointing to his fans. Remember, before his scandal, Tiger had the highest approval rating ever, of anyone, including presidents and priests. He was the most highly regarded person in the United States. It is simply ludicrous to imagine a guy who talks about himself in the third person all the time and usually about nonsense reaching that same height. Tiger got to where he was with a combination of excessive winning and class. LeBron has neither, no winning, excessive or otherwise, and as he continues to demonstrate by referring to himself as the King when he is more the joker, that he is not doing too well in the class department.
As LeBron James himself might put it, “LeBron needs to start winning and stop scheduling idiotic hour long televised special events to announce what team the King is going to.” His latest escapade was more than boorish, it was stupid, and it’s the exact kind of thing that will ensure he never becomes what Tiger Woods was, the world’s favorite corporate spokesman.