2004: Business - Teen Drama

If Michelle Wie thought life to this point has been a whirlwind, she may want to sit and rest a moment. The wildest ride likely is yet to come.

Who knows when the 14-year-old Hawaiian prodigy will turn pro, but in preparation of that much-anticipated debut, marketers are jockeying to attach themselves to the can’t-miss kid. Agents, equipment makers – and even some mainstream Fortune 500 companies – expect Wie to be the biggest endorsement sensation since Tiger Woods uttered the words, “Hello, world,” and signed a succession of deals with the likes of Nike, Buick and American Express.

Though she still has many hurdles to clear, Wie potentially could achieve “icon” status and emerge a celebrity who not only rules women’s golf, but transcends the entire sports world. Girlish yet striking, youthful yet mature, smart yet cool, Wie possess the marketability to resonate among coveted consumer audiences, most notably moms and teen-agers. And if she somehow combines that appeal with the almost inconceivable feat of winning on the PGA Tour, Wie might become the first woman athlete to ink endorsement contracts as lucrative as those signed by superstar men. Nothing’s close to being a done deal, but one prominent agent says Wie and her booming driver have a chance to shatter glass ceilings and assemble a portfolio of deals worth as much as $80 million annually.

Such staggering sums can be best attained if she turns pro sooner than later and capitalizes on her youth, according to experts. Wie insists she’ll pursue a college career first, but the dollars at stake already have created a swirl of interest around her.

Heading a pack of agents in hot pursuit is IMG, the giant management firm that operates the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, where Wie’s coach, Gary Gilchrist, is based. A number of equipment companies are wooing her, too. Nike Golf, for the most part, has reassigned Greg Nared, Woods’ long-time company liaison, to shadow Wie. And TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, which outfits Wie, is “constantly out there with her,” says one agent.

Wie’s potential seems limitless, but marketing experts urge caution in estimating her worth.

“If you believe in the proposition – which I don’t – that she can compete favorably with the men, her marketing value can be $80 million a year,” says Rocky Hambric, president of Hambic Sports Management. “If, however, she is just one of the top 5 to 10 LPGA Tour players, which I think is much more likely, then her marketing value is anywhere from about $200,000 to about $6 to $8 million a year, no more than that.”

Whether she competes successfully on the PGA Tour is at the crux of determining Wie’s corporate value, and will largely dictate the size and types of deals she is offered within and outside of the golf arena. Regardless, Wie already has attracted so much media exposure that Eddie Binder, a former Top-Flite marketing chief who now is principal of the consulting firm Apex Growth Strategies, says he “would not be surprised if she is the highest-paid woman endorser of all” right out of the chute.

Companies that historically have not used golfers as endorsers, such as Nickelodeon, Coca-Cola or Pepsi, might suddenly be “presented with some interesting opportunities . . . where they may not have had a foothold before,” says Dean Stoyer, Nike Golf’s director of communications. He compared the recent U.S. Women’s Open at The Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass., where throngs of young girls followed Wie, to the women’s World Cup of the late 1990s, during which youngsters traipsed after soccer superstar Mia Hamm.

Dan Levy, who manages Hamm and Women’s Open champion Meg Mallon as director of the women’s sports group at Octagon Sports Management, says that at her peak, Hamm netted $2 million to $3 million annually from companies such as Gatorade, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods and Frito Lay. Wie, he adds, could be the “next big, big thing, and not only in women’s sports.”

However, it is much more difficult for female athletes to command the lucrative deals negotiated by their male counterparts, Levy says. He cited the July 5 issue of Forbes, which listed the World’s 50 Best Paid Athletes. No women made the list. (An accompanying article on www.Forbes.com, crowned tennis star Serena Williams as the highest-paid female athlete with $9.5 million in annual on- and off-court earnings. Forbes.com pegged Annika Sorestam’s combined income at $5 million, and mentioned Wie as a “glimmer of hope” for female athletes in the future.)

Aside from her talent, it is Wie’s youth that appeals to her suitors.

“Michelle Wie is front and center right now because she is 14,” says one agent who requested anonymity. “If she’s playing professionally on the LPGA Tour as a 16-year-old and dominating that tour, there’s a certain market value there. If she’s 22 and doing that, there’s a certain market value there. Obviously, it’s higher at 16.”

Indeed, a youth movement is becoming more prevalent in sports marketing. John Kawaja, president of Adidas Golf, notes that the biggest deals for basketball players entering the NBA are going to promising, young athletes directly out of high school or college, and are based less on experience and more on “anticipation or the potential for what a player can become.”

“I’m not saying that golf or women’s golf is going the way of basketball endorsements. . . but it’s an interesting example to look at,” Kawaja says.

Wie could hasten such comparisons if she seeks an LPGA membership application from commissioner Ty Votaw as early as October, when she turns 15. The LPGA’s constitution allows for player ages 15-18 to join the tour under special permission, based upon their ability to assume professional and financial responsibilities.

Wie has remained steadfast about her intention to go to college, but the pot of gold that awaits could prove irresistable.

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