Although bank card companies are in hot pursuit of sponsorship and affinity marketing deals with sports leagues and teams, they are often lukewarm about backing specific athletes.
The risk is that they might become too closely identified with a single person's fortunes, which can rise or fall. Executives say they get more bang for their bucks by cutting deals where they can be associated with entire rosters of star players.
"It is difficult to get the same benefit from an individual athlete," said Lori Smith, a spokeswoman for Visa U.S.A.
When companies do recruit a single celebrity, it is often a retired athlete, who can't fall into a slump and has more time to do personal appearances.
"It's smart to pick nonactive players," said Marianne Fulgenzi, a spokeswoman for MasterCard International.
Visa's recent five-year marketing deal with Jack Nicklaus was forged not with the legendary golfer, but with his marketing company, Golden Bear Golf Inc. Visa promotes Mr. Nicklaus' enterprise and has exclusive rights to market itself as Golden Bear's preferred payment card.
MasterCard has featured two retired greats-hockey star Bobby Orr and Pele, who has been called "the Babe Ruth of soccer." But those appearances grow out of agreements MasterCard has with the National Hockey League and World Cup Soccer.
"We are a financial services company, and unlike a company like Nike, it may not be clear to people why we want to get into sports marketing," Ms. Fulgenzi said. Established stars can validate the merits of a brand being and increase the company's acceptability as a sponsor, Ms. Fulgenzi said.
American Express Co. has aligned itself with individuals. "Often an athlete can bring a sponsorship alive," said spokeswoman Emily Porter.
In May the New York-based company signed golf sensation Tiger Woods for a reported $48 million. Mr. Woods' job was to promote American Express Financial Advisors as part of the company's "Do More" advertising campaign.
American Express signed another multiyear endorsement contract with Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks in the Women's National Basketball Association.
"We are not necessarily going to sign a celebrity for every sponsorship," Ms. Porter said. "But there are cases when it makes a lot of sense, when it personalizes the sponsorship for the customer."
Ms. Porter said Tiger Woods appeals to broad audiences and embodies qualities of hard work and achievement that reinforce American Express themes.
David Jacobson, senior editor of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, said it was a clever move to use Mr. Woods in the financial advisory area instead of traditional cards. "It seems as if they are trying to outflank MasterCard and Visa in terms of offering a total financial services package to audiences," he said.