Branding Rory McIlroy

  • Farrell Evans [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | October 31, 2012

We're in the period of the golf season when many players began to fiddle with their equipment. They test new balls, irons, drivers, shoes and umbrellas. Agents meet with prospective sponsors looking to get exposure through the PGA Tour. For the players, it's a time to tinker, but it's also a time to get paid.

Rory McIlroy has a big payday coming after splitting with Titleist after five years. There is speculation that he will sign with Nike Golf, where he would join a Tour staff that includes Tiger Woods, Charl Schwartzel and Anthony Kim.

The 23-year-old Northern Irishman, who vaulted to No. 1 in the world in 2012, could stake new territory with a brand that gives him a greater measure of exclusivity and prominence, where he wouldn't be in the shadow of Tiger.

Yet with Nike, McIlroy instantly becomes the benefactor of a storied legacy with a sports marketing infrastructure that takes him from being merely a great golf champion with the countenance of a superstar to a bona fide global brand.

McIlroy can be like Mike and Tiger under the rubric of the logo they helped to make famous. His future soars on his own wings, but now he's in a grand fraternity with benefits.

The reigning PGA champion may have to endure a short adjustment period to the new equipment. But that is far outweighed by the long-term benefits of gaining the added visibility and cache of Nike.

Adidas, Puma, Reebok and any number of global sports brands are as integral to Nike in this work of fusing celebrity with performance. And in varying ways, all of us -- from the average sports fan to the media -- are important participants in the making and undoing of athletes and the brands that they endorse.

As much as we recognize our favorite pro golfers by their swings, body types, hair and gaits, we also know them by the companies on their chests and golf bags. We know their club brand, ball and clothing apparel.

In an attempt to get more distance, we buy the same drivers used by the longest hitters. To make more putts, we get the most popular putter on tour. We want what the pros have.

In an era of free agency and blockbuster trades when our sports heroes have become less and less known for their attachment to one team and uniform, Tiger's head-to-toe swoosh is intimately linked to every stage of his career. His body and the shade of his Sunday red have changed some over the years, but that iconic logo that's plastered all over his body has been an enduring symbol of his dominance.

Rory McIlroy
Warren Little/Getty ImagesWhen next season rolls around, Rory will be using a new brand of golf ball.

The brand and the man have become interchangeable with almost no distinction of how these warring souls compete for space in his life.

But that's the price of fame. If McIlroy doesn't yet know this cruel reality, he will soon come to find it in the coming years.

Since the 1920s, top golfers have had a close relationship with Madison Avenue and the advertising industry. Walter Hagen was a pitchman for everything from cigarettes to liquor to air rifles to golf course developments. Gene Sarazen promoted shotgun shells, pipe tobacco and beer.

Then, in the early 1960s, with the help of IMG founder Mark McCormack, Arnold Palmer revolutionized sports marketing.

Palmer's Original Penguin golf shirts and L & M cigarettes were fixtures of his mystique -- brands dutifully purchased with abundance by his loyal army.

It would be naïve to think that if McIlroy ends up at Nike, it will be the last major equipment deal he does in his lifetime. Like Palmer, Hagen, and Tiger and all the rest of the marketable giants, he is a brand with a long future as a paid pitchman.

Ultimately, McIlroy has to hold his place at the top of the game. Lucrative endorsement deals place an even greater premium on winning majors and other big tournaments. All that Nike prophesied for Tiger when he turned pro in 1996 has come to pass. McIlroy doesn't have that same pressure to transcend the game, but by taking a place alongside the 14-time major champion at Nike, he accepts the responsibility to be great and a force in the game.

That's the power and genius of branding. As the No. 1 player in the world, the heir apparent to the best that the game has ever seen, McIlroy is positioning himself, in the infancy of his career, to evolve into one of the chief ambassadors of the game of his generation.

It could be the best bet he's made so far in his brief time in the sport.

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