The 23-year-old golf phenom, Rory McIlroy, who hails from Holywood in County Down, Northern Ireland, has signed a deal of such magnitude with Nike that he’s just entered a new league of earnings. “I chose Nike for a number of reasons,” said McIlroy. “They are committed to being the best, as am I. Signing with Nike is another step towards living out my dream.” There was a similar amount of enthusiasm on the other side of the deal, with Cindy Davis, president of the company’s golf division, saying, “Rory is the epitome of a Nike athlete and he is joining our team during the most exciting time in Nike golf’s history.”
Monday’s lavish announcement in Abu Dhabi confirmed what many in the sport and media had long thought: McIlroy left Titleist on a multiyear deal for Nike, which could be worth up to $250 million. Perhaps it was always meant to be. When McIlroy won the World Under 10s Championship in Miami, what was he wearing? A Nike cap.
Unsurprisingly, Nike has already put its new endorser to work. He’s spent the past month testing and refining the clubs he will use for the first time at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week. But the bigger talking point, at least in the short term, is the advert he’s made with Nike’s other star golfer. Yes, a certain Eldrick “Tiger” Woods and McIlroy have recorded an ad on a driving range, with their hijinks and good natured trash talk almost sure to put them on the televisions and on computers of people who don’t normally care for golf.
It’s no coincidence to see Woods’s involvement from the outset. A year ago, in Abu Dhabi, it’s believed that the pair began to hit it off, with Woods reportedly putting aside any reservations he might have had about the new kid on the block, with their blossoming friendship seeming like the real deal rather than a marketing person’s fantasy. Woods went on the record Tuesday, noting that “a lot of things are certainly changing in his life and I’ve kind of been there and understand it. We’ve certainly hit it off. Our relationship has grown and our friendship has gotten better.” For what it’s worth, McIlroy’s slightly more cautious take was that, “I think once Tiger gets to know you and trusts you, I guess, and lets you in, then it’s great.”
And speaking of great, perhaps this deal truly is a win-win for all involved. Nike cements its position within the sport by having arguably the planet’s best known golfers in its stable. What’s more, McIlroy and Woods are partnered with each other – alongside Martin Kaymer – during the first two rounds of this week’s Abu Dhabi Championship. The sporting company may be of the opinion that McIlroy has serious marketing potential. “More than just about any other sport, golf has broad international appeal. It’s popular here, in Europe, in Asia, most everywhere in the world,” Bob Dorfman, an athlete compensation expert and executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco told TIME’s sister publication GOLF.com. “And marketers are definitely thinking globally these days. McIlroy is an athlete who could appeal to and influence a broad demographic, across all continents.”
As for the golfer himself, the money involved catapults him onto the list of the biggest sporting earners on the planet, alongside the likes of Woods and fellow golfer Phil Mickelson. In other sports, you find the soccer players David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio, basketball players LeBron James – he’s also with Nike – and Derrick Rose as well as tennis great, and longtime Nike man, Roger Federer.
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At Monday’s launch, McIlroy received a video message from Federer, Woods and Manchester United soccer player Wayne Rooney, who all delivered the same on-brand message: “Welcome to the family.” Nike may well be looking to the future as Federer’s star has been on the wane for quite some time – heck, even a British player, Andy Murray, finally managed to win a Grand Slam – and Woods’s on and off the course problems are well documented. The fact that the 37-year-old hasn’t won a major championship since 2008 – and the personal nightmare of his marriage to Elin Nordegren breaking down set in soon afterward – might be preying on the minds of Nike’s management. Further evidence comes with the company signing up the next wave of golf stars, such as Russell Henley, Nick Watney and Thorbjorn Olesen.
The PGA, and wider golfing world, may not be opposed to Woods and McIlroy going at it against each other for as long as possible (when Woods missed multiple tournaments through injury in 2008, television ratings slumped by 47%). It doesn’t get much more dramatic than the final day of a golf major in sports, and if the twosome are the final pair of the day, they could end up establishing a rivalry to match, say, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
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Could there be a downside to the deal? There’s every possibility that McIlroy doesn’t take to his new clubs instantly, whereas his Titleists were his clubs for his two majors to date. Sir Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner from Britain, has already described the switch in clubs as “dangerous,” adding that “every manufacturer will tell you we can copy your clubs and tweak the golf ball so it fits you. But there is a feel and sound as well, and there’s confidence.”
Will the world number one’s confidence be affected if he doesn’t instantly perform with his new hardware? Time will tell with McIlroy seemingly happier to discuss the tricky time zone issues that come with watching his girlfriend, Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, compete in the Australian Open. “It’s fine. I’ve done it plenty of weeks before. It’s something that I’m used to,” he said. “Even if I try to get some sleep and she is playing, I won’t be able to sleep because all I’ll be able to do is thinking about how she’s doing and checking the phone and check the score. So I may as well watch it and put myself out of my misery a bit.”
Perhaps if McIlroy’s having trouble sleeping, he can rewatch the Nike advert with Woods. “Just trying to keep up with the old guy,” he says at one point, though it’s Woods who gets the last laugh. But for how much longer?