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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004

Tiger's agent Steinberg says business better than ever

Staff writer

Mark Steinberg is the agent for the world's No. 1 golfer Tiger Woods.

In his role as a Senior Vice President for International Management Group, he oversees the company's golf division and travels the globe pursuing marketing and endorsement opportunities for one of the world's most popular athletes.

News photo
Mark Steinberg, the agent for Tiger Woods and a Senior Vice President with IMG, speaks to The Japan Times at an exclusive interview in Tokyo.

Steinberg sat down with The Japan Times for an exclusive interview during a recent trip to Tokyo and gave his thoughts on a wide range of subjects involving his top client.

Japan Times: How long have you been the agent for Tiger Woods?

Mark Steinberg: Six years.

In your role as a Senior Vice President with IMG, what percentage of your time do you spend on Tiger?

We have restructured the golf division in the last three or four months. I am responsible for North/South America, Asia and Japan. I have made it a point to make sure that my time with Tiger is what it is.

He is not a demanding client. The business around Tiger is very demanding.

I think I spend the same amount of time, right now, on Tiger that I did three or four years ago. I probably just carve a few more hours out of the day to work.

Do you have other athletes that you manage?

Yes. I manage Annika Sorenstam. Also, Vince Carter in basketball. That's really it.

I'm trying to not get involved with many personal athlete representation contracts because of the corporate responsibilities that I have now.

Sports Illustrated recently estimated that Tiger will make $70 million in endorsement deals this year. Is that figure accurate?

I rarely comment on the accuracy of these reports. They have done a good job of estimating.

How many different sponsors does Tiger now have?

He has 11 sponsors.

I will tell you what is impressive and shows the type of person he is. There is very little turnover in his endorsement portfolio.

In the eight years that he has been a pro, I think there has been just one changeover in an endorsement contract.

What percentage of endorsement deals offered does Tiger accept?

Ninety-nine percent of the offers are declined.

Tiger is very fortunate. He portrays the great brand image, the great public persona, and that's who he is.

I mean he's just that good of a person, so he has enormous opportunities, but he has turned down most that come his way.

What are the primary factors you and he consider when evaluating potential deals?

We look at a lot of different areas when we do this. It's important, if you look at Tiger's portfolio of companies, you see a range of companies and they reach certain demographics.

He has American Express, he has General Motors with Buick, he has Nike, which is all encompassing, he has EA Sports, which reaches the kids, and Tag Heuer. So we look for international and wide-ranging (opportunities), but we look to reach as many different people as we can.

Tiger is probably going to be known more for the people that he reaches, rather than just the number of tournaments that he wins. So we think about all of those factors when we are looking at deals.

Is overexposure a concern when it comes to Tiger and endorsements?

Absolutely. Tiger and I have had many conversations about this in the last 18 months. I think he's in a good position right now.

I don't think he is overexposed, right now. But we keep a very, very close eye on that.

Overexposure is interesting. He has great companies. Companies that put his brand and image out there all the time.

But because he is who he is, when a golf tournament is on TV, on any given weekend, he's on every step of the way, whether he is in first place or 10th place.

So he is on every single shot. When you see two or three sequential commercials that come on after that, after you have seen every single shot of Tiger, that kind of plays into the overexposure.

Nobody else would have to worry about that.

We have all seen Tiger's ability on the golf course. Can you describe him in a business sense?

Very savvy. Extremely intelligent. Stanford education. Great family. Great upbringing.

He wants to know. You deal with athletes and some want to know when the deal is done. Some want to know from the very start of a negotiation.

Tiger is pretty active. He wants to know what is going on. He and I talk every day. He wants to know about his business life.

He is very business savvy and has a very acute mind.

Is Tiger's father still part of the decision-making process when it comes to business?

Yes. He has certainly taken a less public role than he has in the past. I still talk to Earl often and he is a critical part of the team.

Many top athletes are surrounded by handlers and people who won't tell them 'no.' What is it like having to tell Tiger he shouldn't do something?

Not easy, but it's not easy telling anybody 'no.'

You don't want to tell your wife, your kids or your friend 'no.' But you have to do that.

If Tiger surrounded himself with 'yes-men' or 'yes-women,' he would not be where he is now.

He allows people to say 'no.' Some people just don't allow themselves to accept the answer of 'no,' but he does.

It is probably not the easiest thing to do, but something that doesn't factor into my decision-making process.

If it's a 'no,' I will tell him that and then he ultimately makes his decision.

He can still say 'yes,' and overrule. But we have some pretty constructive conversations.

What is the strangest deal that Tiger has ever been offered?

We get inundated with requests every day. Hundreds a week come in.

It is always entertaining to see Tiger be invited to a 13-year-old's bar mitzvah or an 82nd birthday party for people he never met in his life. That goes on every day.

Is that because people feel connected to him?

Yes. It is very flattering to him that they do feel that connection. He emanates that public persona of the receptive nature that he has.

Does Tiger spend time on his business affairs while he is playing in a tournament?

No. He doesn't.

Because we have been together for six years now, I certainly understand when he wants to do business and when he doesn't. During a tournament week, we rarely do any business.

Even though Tiger is still the No. 1 golfer in the world, has the recent perception that his performance has dipped affected his endorsement opportunities at all?

Not at all. Not one bit.

The media likes to talk about how he hasn't won a major in awhile, but it hasn't affected his appeal, marketability and popularity one bit.

Tiger has gone to court, in the past, to prevent unlawful use of his likeness by companies he is not affiliated with. Because he is an international celebrity, is this a continuing problem?

Yes it is. And it is something that we feel very strongly about.

You quoted an estimated number that he makes in endorsement money a year, so that means that companies pay him a significant sum of money to endorse their products.

Tiger and I both feel that it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we protect the rights of the people that pay him money to endorse their products.

So, if somebody is going to use his name in an illegal or unauthorized way, we're going to fight that.

In the past, you have described managing a star in an individual sport -- such as golf -- like managing a consumer brand. Can you elaborate on that?

When you have an athlete like Tiger, Annika or Vince Carter, and marketability and the wide range of demographics that they reach, I think it is important that you look at each individual as their own brand.

I want to make sure that I handle the Tiger Woods brand as Coca-Cola would handle their brand.

Coca-Cola, Nike or Pepsi are, arguably, the strongest brands internationally. You can see the insignia or logo anywhere in the world and you know what that is. They have done a great job.

Nike, with the swoosh, has done a great job handling their brand and their image.

I think it is very important that we do the same with our athletes.

Are there areas where Tiger doesn't have an endorsement that you think he could?

Six years ago, Tiger came to me one day and said he was ready to do another endorsement. He said to me, 'What do you think I should do?'

We talked about it and we decided that the product category that he would entertain would be automotive. It lends itself to golf. There are some creative things you can do with golf and automotive, and they happen to be a big sponsor.

Tiger and I think about categories rather than specific companies. There are probably a couple of categories that are open and available, right now.

Anything that you can talk about?

(Laughs). I don't want to put any undue pressure on myself, Tiger or the categories that we may bring up.

Tiger had an endorsement for a coffee drink in Japan. Is that deal still active?

It is not active. He had the deal for six years with Asahi Beverage. He had an initial three-year deal and then another three-year renewal.

Typically, athlete endorsements on consumer products are usually a three-year life span, and this one lasted six.

I think Asahi was suitably happy with what he did.

Are there plans to get him some new deals here in Japan?

I wouldn't say that is necessarily a priority.

The companies that Tiger associates himself with are international by nature, so I encourage General Motors, Nike, Accenture and American Express to use Tiger in this market as well.

If the right opportunity came up, we would certainly entertain it. But I think territory-specific deals are probably not as relevant with the global nature of his endorsement contracts.

A lot of entertainers seem to come to Japan to try to make a quick buck with an endorsement deal, but that is not Tiger's strategy, is it?

'Quick buck' is the antithesis of what he is about. That is not what he embodies and not what I try to encourage as his manager.

We don't do one-year deals. Any deal that we entertain has to be multi-year.

Of the 11 sponsors that Tiger has, did all of them come to you, or did you seek them out?

It was a combination. Some come to us, some we seek out. Some through contacts that we have. It's a wide variety.

He is such a lightning rod for appeal, that it's a mix and match as to how a lot of these have come about.

What do you think about the recent, critical comments by Johnny Miller about Tiger?

Johnny is paid by NBC to be critical. I think you have to take his comments for what they are. I don't take them to heart and I hope Tiger doesn't.

He (Miller) is overly critical. That's what he is. That's what he likes to do. That's what NBC wants him to do.

How about those by his former coach Butch Harmon?

Tiger and I spent a lot of time talking about this. He was hurt more than anything else. He felt like it was a personal attack. He and Butch are friends.

I think Tiger felt very hurt by the comments and felt that they should not have been aired the way they were. It should have been done between the two of them and that is why Tiger picked up the phone and called him.

Over the years, Tiger has become more adept at dealing with the media, yet you still get the feeling that he doesn't really enjoy it. Would you say that is accurate?

I don't think that's accurate.

When your life is a complete fishbowl, I think it would be a fabrication to say that you actually enjoy it (dealing with the media).

When you come out of your house in the morning and there are cameras and microphones there, and that is really what his life is like, he understands that it comes with the territory.

But to say that he 'enjoys' it is not fair. I think he deals with it. He understands it's part of being an international superstar. It's part of making the money that he makes. So, he deals with it.

He doesn't dislike it, but I wouldn't say that he absolutely loves to do it. He understands that it's part of his life and his lifestyle.

Your job requires long hours, extensive travel and constant pressure. Do you ever wonder what you have gotten yourself into?

I am very lucky. It all fell into place.

To be able to say that I represent Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam or Vince Carter, or now that I run the golf division of the greatest sports marketing company in the world, is something. I'm a realist. Right place, right time.

Certainly, a lot of hard work. No doubt about that. Everybody that knows me, knows that I put in the hours. You kind of have to be presented with certain opportunities. You kind of walk into some things and I know that I am very, very lucky.

I try to be as humble as I can about this. It's important that I keep it in perspective.

What percentage of the time are you on the road?

I am on the road half the time, excluding weekends. I try to make sure that I'm home almost every weekend, but with international travel, and weekends like Augusta or the U.S. Open, I can't do that all the time.

Tiger will be playing in the Dunlop/Phoenix tournament in Miyazaki in November, won't he?

Yes. He is looking forward to it. For Tiger it's really important to him, personally, and to his business, that he makes an appearance in Asia and Japan, in particular.

The Dunlop/Phoenix event has always been known as one of the premier events on the international golf scene and I think the last couple of years it's really elevated itself. He is particularly excited about coming back here to play again this year.

Tiger will tell you that the Japanese public and fans and culture here, is something that he really does look forward to. They are so respectful.

How far in advance do you decide Tiger's playing schedule?

When it comes to international events, we usually look 18-24 months out, sometimes longer than that.

David Duval started a golf school in Miyazaki a couple of years ago. Will Tiger do something like that someday?

Tiger already does a lot of teaching through his Tiger Woods Foundation, which generates millions of dollars for international charities. I think, at some point, golf-course design schools will be an extension of what he is doing.

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