The marketability of McIlroy and the rise of Jordan Spieth

By The Earnie Team

Four years ago, we wrote an article about Rory McIlroy. In it, we talked of him as golf’s next marketing and sponsorship superstar. And earlier this year, something interesting happened: he was announced as the new face of EA Sports’ PGA Tour game.

The fading image of Woods

In 2009, Tiger Woods smashed his car into a fire hydrant near his home in Florida. Pulled from the wreckage was not just Woods, but a series of shocking revelations about his private life. Woods was forced to take a break from the game, and after his misdemeanours were splashed across the front pages, most of his sponsors decided to drop him.

The errant behaviour of a sporting icon isn’t the only challenge a sponsor can face. We recently looked at how ambush or guerrilla marketing is keeping organisations on their toes.

Despite Woods’ situation, and the fact that he’d not won a major tournament since 2008’s US Open, he remained the face of golf around the globe – a sport he’d been carrying, in commercial terms, for the last 15 years.

In the last few years, Woods’ persistent back niggles and swing tinkering has reduced his competition play and caused his world ranking to plummet (he’s currently ranked 226). He’s nowhere near the golfer he once was – and his race to catch Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors looks run. Although a strong performance at this year’s Masters has got fans’ and commentators’ chins wagging: “Could Woods clinch another major?” “Is his game finally on the up?”, Woods shot the two worst rounds of his career in 2015 – a second round 82 at the Phoenix Open and a third round 85 at Memorial.

But at this month’s Greenbrier Classic, he carded his best round of the year with a four-under 66 – his lowest score on the PGA Tour since March 2014. So there is reason to be cheerful, if you are, like me, someone who wants to see Woods back challenging for the biggest prizes in golf.

The rise of a new generation

The new kids who burst onto the scene alongside Rory McIlroy, like Jason Day and Ricky Fowler, have showed no signs of slowing down. They’ve cemented their reputations with tour wins and 2nd place major performances, hinting that one of the big four trophies is easily within reach. And a younger generation, led by Americans Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, has helped to settle TV broadcasters who feared a ratings collapse if Woods were ever to hang up his spiked Nike golf shoes.

The marketability of McIlroy

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour will be available to buy later this month. Not only has the young Northern Irishman taken over from Woods as the new face of Nike Golf, he’s now the face of EA Sports’ legendary golf game. Woods’ name and image promoted the game from 1998 to 2013, until a mutual decision was made to end their partnership. No game was released last year as the developers were busy creating the new version for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

For marketers and sponsorship managers, Rory McIlroy is a very safe pair of hands. He’s been immensely successful – with 10 European Tour and 9 PGA Tour wins and three Majors on his mantelpiece by the age of 25. He’s also well behaved, well mannered and polite, seemingly invincible when he’s winning, but also gracious in defeat. He’s exciting to watch – and can hit magnificent runs of form that have seen him win tournaments by huge, history-making margins.

McIlroy is one of only a few global sports stars whose name means something to non-sports fans; his face and achievements are recognisable to those who may never have seen him swing a club. Which is probably why, alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jensen Button, he’s become the face of Santander, appearing across everything from TV ads to giant posters on the Tube.

When done right, the benefits of sponsorship can be huge. But it isn’t enough just having a huge talent on board – brands have to get their activation right. But this can be easier said than done.

For brands, McIlroy represents what Woods did, and then some. As closed as Woods was, McIlroy is open, warm and charismatic. Both players love their sport, but there was something in the way that Woods played that made him inaccessible, like there was always a barrier between himself and the crowd.

The rise of Jordan Spieth

This brings us to perhaps the only player in the world who could be more ‘McIlroy’ than McIlroy: Jordan Spieth. The 21-year-old from Texas won this year’s Masters in a way not seen since Tiger Woods demolished the course back in 1997; Woods shot the lowest ever four-round total of 18 under par and romped home 12 strokes clear of the field. He was also 21. With one hole to go, Spieth had the chance to shoot the lowest ever 72 hole score. He missed, pushing his putt wide, and now shares the record with Woods.

He was at it again at this year’s US Open. Winning that is. Not by a large margin, but winning nonetheless. After Dustin Johnson three-putted the final hole, Spieth claimed his first US Open – and second Major on the spin. And as the 144th Open looms into view at St Andrews, people’s attention will turn to whether Spieth will become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the first three legs of the modern grand slam.

The future is bright

One of the beauties of golf is the amount of time a player is given in which to forge a career. McIlroy and Spieth, and fans around the world, can look forward to enjoying a rivalry that has the potential to last for the next 30 years.

And what’s more, you can now play as Jordan Spieth in Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. Game on!