Athletes and Scandals, 2009 Edition

Pro sports is no stranger to scandal. Thanks to Tiger Woods, 2009 was slightly more embarrassing than usual

More so than TARP sports marketing controversies, the Cowboys' new digs in Dallas, and the Yankees' return to glory, few things dominated headlines in 2009 quite like the scandals of athletes. After Michael Phelps was photographed taking a bong hit in February, the dominoes began falling. Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez were implicated in steroid use. Andre Agassi released a tell-all book detailing the dark side of his tennis career. Emphatic yearend punctuation came from Tiger Woods, who crashed into what is now the world's most infamous fire hydrant, sparking the most drastic image unraveling in the history of sport.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen…to an extent.

Exactly how "powerful" is Tiger Woods? Despite having confessed to adultery and then paying for it with plummeting popularity, Tiger finished far ahead of the pack on the Power 100 list. While his on-course performance stands on its own, Tiger's maintenance of his off-course dominance can best be attributed to the $90 million-plus he made in endorsements, more than double his closest competitor's number.

Swapping Out Tiger Billboards

That didn't prevent Tiger from becoming a sports marketing pariah. According to an E-Poll Market Research survey conducted two months after the scandal broke, Tiger saw his "class" score fall 76% (from 25 to 6), his "appeal" score drop 63% (from 65 to 24), and his "influence" decrease 38% (from 37 to 23). Meanwhile, his "creepiness" rating skyrocketed 1,200% (from 1 to 13), and his "insincerity" grew by 833% (from 3 to 28).

No wonder such companies as Gatorade, Gillette, and TAG Heuer are scaling back Tiger ad campaigns. Accenture (ACN), which severed ties with Woods, had the fallen figure appearing in 83% of its international ads. Swapping out Tiger airport billboards alone will cost tens of millions of dollars and months to complete.

Since his scandal did not become a public fiasco until the end of 2009, it is unlikely that Tiger's 2009 tax return will be any lower. But as the 2010 PGA Tour season begins with Tiger on an "indefinite leave of absence," and sponsors continue to reevaluate their relationships with the troubled superstar, Woods will be hard-put to reclaim his top spot on the next Power 100 list.

A-Rod: Might Made All Right

As for Tiger's fellow sports rogues, Phelps and Rodriguez faced vastly different routes to repairing a damaged image. Since Phelps was exposed for smoking marijuana—with his watch from sponsor Omega prominently displayed on his bong-holding wrist in an incriminating party photo—he's largely been out of the limelight. Lacking a major world stage to splash onto until 2012, Phelps has not had an Olympic-caliber opportunity to rebound from blows to his appeal, awareness, and influence. Had the notorious photo never been taken, we estimate that Phelps would have finished second on the final list.

On the other hand, Rodriguez was front and center throughout 2009. A-Rod's ratings for sincerity and appeal dropped significantly after he admitted to steroid use. However, his off-field numbers essentially returned to normal after the Yankees claimed their 27th World Series, proving that if you win, no one cares what happens outside the baselines.

Tiger, the starter just called your name. Time to tee it up.

Click here to see the world's most powerful athletes in the 2010 Power 100.

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